The horror…: “The Seventh Victim”
November 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s difficult to view and appraise – without growing resentment – a film that is considered by some prominent critical voices (Jonathan Rosenbaum being chief amongst them) to be the or at least one of the crowning achievements in renowned B-picture producer Val Lewton’s relatively small but influential filmography. Said difficulty presents itself not too long after director Mark Robson’s “The Seventh Victim” hits its stride, if one can call it that – more like a slow, anergic trudge – and morphs into a resounding disappointment by the time the literally clunky final shot rolls around. The film is frequently noted for having a bizarre plot, an odd assessment of a narrative that can be synopsised thusly: high-schooler Mary Gibson (played by a serviceable Kim Hunter) goes in search of her death-wishing older sister Jaqueline Gibson (Jean Brooks looking very much like her surnamesake Louise Brooks), a cultist who has gone into hiding after evoking the bloodlust of her brethren by seeing a psychiatrist and possibly exposing their secrets. So plot-wise, this is no “The Big Sleep.” The film has also been praised for its noirish poetry though there is not one shot or sequence worth recalling, unless perhaps the creepy scene during which Mary Gibson re-encounters Lou Lubin’s dead detective in a deserted subway car, or the admittedly haunting shot of Jacqueline Gibson sitting in a chair, surrounded by black-clad ex-fellow Satanists, debating whether or not to commit suicide on their terms or on hers. Betsy Connell’s eerie jungle sojourn in “I Walked with a Zombie” and Alice Moore’s high-heeled jogs through chillingly empty New York City streets or her night-time pool swim in the brilliant “Cat People” evoke a thrilling and protracted sense of dread matched by nothing in “The Seventh Victim.” The soundscapes in the former two pictures, both directed by the great Jacques Tourneur (for Val Lewton), are simply rich enough, detailed enough to complement the visual sparseness and simplicity that renders those films perfect for preying upon a viewer’s jumpy imagination. Conversely, “The Seventh Victim” seems somewhat deprived, as though the film begs that the viewer pretend to be terrified by the mystery of a missing woman or by the presence of the occult in Greenwich Village, rather than enticing them to give in to the terror that should already nag at them, incited by the contents of the movie itself. Where the best of the best B-grade horror productions from the forties and fifties – and all periods for that matter – circumvent their lack of funds/resources by turning want into ascetic efficiency and poetic minimalism and ensuring that silence and stillness manifest as resounding emotional disquiet, this 1943 film simply feels demoralised by its low-budget status.
“The Seventh Victim” seems to be frequently described within the same breath as being both a horror and a noir; perhaps a noirish horror or a horror noir? But where exactly does the horror reside? Assumedly, its credentials as a chiller are founded in its occult/supernatural leanings, but this picture desperately needs an injection of “Rosemary’s Baby” or even “The Wicker Man” where Satanism is concerned. The band of cultists at the centre of Jacqueline Gibson’s disappearance may be portrayed in the way that they are – refined in a callous way, bourgeoisie more than bohemian – in order to capitalise on the notion of ‘the banality of evil’; that these people are frightening precisely because they may very well be your folks’ lawyer or your aunt’s obstetrician but that they would also gladly feast on your dripping, severed neck (though they probably wouldn’t). This is exactly the case with “Rosemary’s Baby”, the only palpable dissimilarity being that there is a chasm of difference in the energy that the two respective groups of actors bring to their portrayals of ‘evil’ with an urbane face. This is not to say that every actor must dominate their scenes like Ruth Gordon does in Polanski’s 1968 masterpiece, but how can one be terrified by a tired band of tarot card enthusiasts – which is how Jacqueline Gibson’s mob come across, either this or the ‘passively’ powerful illuminati – or whatever demonic force it is that they represent, especially when their ineffectuality if confirmed in a hokey scene towards the end of the film in which the Lord’s Prayer is wielded like a paper sword against a dead adversary?
Maybe the noir angle is the most interesting element of the film, the depressive rut that Jacqueline seems to be in for the film’s entirety and which culminates in a final moment that so desperately wants to be bittersweet but which seems rather blah. It must be said that the idea of a key character who maintains a room with a noose and stool in place so as to maintain her sense of self-determination is worthy of sitting up and taking notice, and it is somewhat surprising to hear ‘suicide’ and similar terms bandied about with relative candidness in a picture from this period. One can only imagine that such a morbid outlook would have made hairs stand erect on the backs of neck and arms when the film first premiered, and that the deeply coy depictions of ‘sordid’ lifestyles and realities – lesbianism, the occult, suicidality and fatalism – would have made for a potentially potent stew of fear and dread in a then contemporary audience, but once this era-dependent effect is made redundant with time, the film must maintain its powers of terror on either an intellectual or a deeply primal level, or at the very least possess undeniable artistic merits, something that a film like “Cat People” does with such elegance and assurance.
The dismay this movie inspires is sadly not allayed by the acting. Jacqueline, when she appears, not only fails to live up to her apparently heart-stopping beauty but bears none of the eeriness of the titular character from Otto Preminger’s “Laura”, though it must be said that she is at least a moderately intriguing presence, the same of which cannot be said for anyone else in the picture, perhaps apart from down on his luck poet Jason Hoag or Dr Judd, the psychiatrist. There is an element of exhaustion to the performances, particularly after the film hits its midway point. Movies from this period, especially American studio ones, display a certain type of acting that seems very conscious of blocking (the way in which actors move and position themselves within the confines of set and the camera’s view of it). In the best pictures from this period, this very ‘staged’ approach is simply part of the artistic fabric. There is a certain theatre, a formality and structure to the dance of actors around each other and across the set that compliments and is complimented by all other elements in these films; it can be like beholding a tango or waltz, appreciating how grace and beauty can be supported, even enhanced, by such stricture and rigid technique. But when there is something lacking – be it actors with range or presence, a screenplay with narrative originality or linguistic flair, or bold, visionary images – this ‘blocking’ becomes transparent and rote and it becomes clear how little else there is.
How many things are more disheartening than sitting down to view an apparent masterpiece and walking away having seen what you’d swear was a dud? It’s enough to make one doubt what one even considers good cinema.
Before manhood, “Boyhood”
November 8, 2014 § Leave a comment
For those as interested in artistry and artisanship as they are the resultant art – in particular, those whose ultimate appreciation of a film is in some way dependent on or at least significantly influenced by their knowledge of the process by which said film found its way onto a screen – “Boyhood” is, quite frankly, a cause celebre. Flourish or fail as it might as a film, these folk, whether in it for the geekery or the gossip, would have a wealth of material over which to froth and obsess. So if bulldozing its way onto the cultural main stage and setting tongues a-wagging and thumbs a-typing was a major goal, however knowing or unknowing on the part of Richard Linklater and his collaborators, the film is quite a success, gathering interest, amassing plaudits and netting somewhat unprecedented box-office receipts. But it may very well be that in order to appreciate and appraise this film with any measure of critical heft and incisiveness, one must first acknowledge the degree to which they are awed or unmoved by the film’s backstory.
Immediately prior to the film’s initial festival showings, when its – and this is said without any disrespect – general ‘gimmick’ was the most interesting thing about it, it would not have been necessarily cynical to expect that, at the very least, a subset of the critical response would be positive if not hyperbolically so. By the same token, a more pessimistic hunch that this very gimmick would be the film’s undoing, that “Boyhood” would be at best an admirable attempt at doing something not-quite/quite possibly new and at worst an artistically fraudulent exercise, would have been perhaps equally valid. But now that the film has been seen as widely as one would expect for a nearly three-hour picture without any clearly discernible plot, the unanimity of the acclaim that “Boyhood” has thus far received is almost disorienting. Sight unseen, what this film could possibly do to inspire such an outpouring of adoration was hard to imagine. Having finally seen it, how exactly “Boyhood” manages to inspire such a rightful outpouring of adoration by a means so understated is hard to break down.
While clearly an undertaking of immense patience and faith on the part of the producers involved, “Boyhood” is an out-and-out achievement from a directorial standpoint, for several reasons. One of a director’s core roles in the making of a film – particularly the ‘point A to point B, whatever the route’ narrative type, which “Boyhood” largely is – is tonal integrity. For logistical reasons pertaining to everything from actors’ schedules to location availability, the vast majority of narrative features are shot out of sequence during principal photography. So if scenes that take place in a particular location are shot one after the after regardless of where they exist temporally in the script, it is imperative that the mood, the rhythm, the tone of performance, the subtext of these scenes fit as seamlessly as possible into the overall structure of the piece once it is assembled in the editing suite. Of course, good actors know their characters’ trajectories to a tee, and there is often a script supervisor whose job it is to ensure that the screenplay (however pedantic or scanty) is adhered to as closely as is necessary for purposes of consistency, but there are countless other elements that contribute to a film’s tonal integrity and it is the director’s responsibility to develop a unifying vision with which they approach each sequence, each scene, each shot. On this front, “Boyhood” could have been photographed in five straight months. It is that seamless. For a man who thought it feasible to shoot a film in the way that he did, Richard Linklater, in conjunction with cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, was wise to limit his experimentation to using the same actors across the twelve year period because one could swear that – despite the avalanche of new formats the aughts brought – “Boyhood” was shot with the same roll of film judging by the unified quality of all the images. Looking at the picture, the camera is unobtrusive and quietly omniscient, the shot choices present things without necessarily highlighting any particular aspects of said things, and the colour scheme is as unadorned as can be, albeit well saturated and with the kind of clear-eyed shimmer that might be expected of an infant’s vision. Where many indie filmmakers overdo the ‘intimacy’ of their camerawork such that the naturalistic tone for which they seem to be aiming ends up being unbalanced and forced, the images in “Boyhood” are intimate but stately; close, but respectfully so. A more stylised approach could most certainly have been taken, but this would have likely undercut the verite nature of the project, the slice-of-life texturing that the cast and crew were presumably striving to achieve and arguably did achieve, with honours. Perhaps even more remarkably, the tonal balance Linklater manages to strike would be difficult for most filmmakers, even those with a heavily iconoclastic or idiosyncratic signature style that they rarely deviate from, let alone for a filmmaker whose output is so variegated, ranging from independent no-budget landmarks like “Slacker” to more mainstream fare like “School of Rock”. And it’s not as though he began in low-budget territory and eventually settled into a studio throne like Christopher Nolan; he continually dips in and out of either scene as well as the territory that exist between those two scenes, and amidst all this dipping and diving he was making “Boyhood.” And yet, while viewing the film one cannot easily tilt one’s head or squint one’s eye and say, ‘oh, yeah, this was probably shot around the same time that he was making “Bernie”’ or ‘this sequence has “A Scanner Darkly” written all over it.’ So if “Boyhood” proves one thing and one thing only, it is that thing for which many admirers of Linklater admire him; his chameleonic versatility.
As a film, “Boyhood” can take a very comfortable seat beside Linklater’s other major work, the so-called “Before” trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Both projects quite openly exploit the temporal nature of the cinematic medium in order to examine the (countless?) roles that human perceptions of time play in influencing the understanding of oneself, others and the relationship between oneself and others. The true indispensability of “Before Midnight” to the “Before” series rests heavily on its being about a relationship that has finally progressed from being potential to actual, one that is falling – or has perhaps already fallen – victim to the ‘damage’ that time and proximity can inflict on two people who have made the decision to love each other no matter what, but perhaps who have failed to take into account the absolutely golden fact that a relationship between two people is really a threesome, with time being the third and perhaps most vital member. In some ways, this new picture “Boyhood” is a progression on the use of elliptical storytelling so prominent in that series, elliptical as in: the drama in each one of those pictures is predicated on ellipses, which is to say that which the viewer has not seen and never will see; that which has not occurred between characters Jesse and Celine due to their living on different continents in the first two films, or that which has in fact occurred between a married Jesse and Celine but which they as individuals and as a couple have not quite dealt with. The power of those films is dependent on the length (nine actual years between the films) of the ellipses and the low-grade but potent assault on the senses that occurs when the two lovers are forced to come to terms with their expectations of each other, of themselves and of their relationship, none of which time has in any way forgotten and has in any way failed to chew away at. Well, what Linklater and company do with “Boyhood” is to shorten the ellipses by eight years, making them less robust visually and narratively (i.e. more subtle), and then to lay them down next to each other with the thinnest seams possible, the overall effect being that the influence of unseen moments on the development of a character become more insidious. Whereas in the “Before” films, in which the nine-year block that the viewer never actually sees must obviously be jam-packed with significant moments such that there is a strong element of ‘unseen drama,’ the distinction between ‘drama’ and ‘anti-drama’ is less obvious in “Boyhood” and thus more akin to life as it is lived by those of us who could be considered ‘real’ or ‘actual.’ In many ways Richard Linklater and Terrence Malick have very similar cinematic philosophies in that they seem to pay no heed to dramatic hierarchy. Malick will cut away from the ‘main action’ of a movie to focus on a prairie bird pecking at the grass, challenging the idea that Time as an omniscient entity is any more interested in the killing spree of Hollie and Kit in “Badlands” than it is in the bird’s ambling existence. Likewise, by providing a narrative which so obviously contains ellipsis after ellipsis – absences of chunks of times which may or may not contain moments of epiphany or which may or may not be of life-changing consequence – “Boyhood” undoes the dramatic hierarchy which normally elevates the spectacular above the soporific and, in doing so, reinforces the significance of ‘the moment’, a theme that ripples continually beneath the film’s surface and which is explicitly voiced in the dialogue scene that brings the picture to a close.
But if the production details of “Boyhood” are as interesting to a viewer as is knowing what Tolstoy usually had for breakfast while writing Anna Karenina is to a reader, what does “Boyhood” offer other than the novelty of beholding what is effectively a practical special effect; what star Ethan Hawke finds somewhat analogous to time-lapse photography? Are there any neon-lit revelations, observations, proclamations – spoken or otherwise – that would merit a t-shirt slogan or car sticker, or, like most of Linklater’s less mainstream pictures, is “Boyhood” more of a culture medium, an Agar plate for self-reflection, meditation and introspection? The latter is probably more accurate a description than the former. Viewed without much analysis, the picture is a very – almost boldly so – straightforward summary of a period in the life of a family as seen through the growing, ever observant eyes of young Mason Jr. By no means a highlights reel of the highest highs and the lowest lows but rather a gently undulating string of moments of varying significance that may or may not earn the central character his final moment of low-key epiphany, the film succeeds dramatically by simply trusting in the quiet spectacle of the everyday, totally in keeping with the Malickian dramatic democracy previously mentioned. Eschewing the temptation many family dramas succumb to: stealing from Southern Gothic melodrama and placing emotional blowouts and tragedy at every corner, in scripting this movie Linklater and his co-writers (that is to say his actors) understand that drama is an intrinsic aspect of every form and facet of human existence. Most people’s experiences might not necessarily inspire soaring monologues or culminate in calamitous family gatherings that leave onlookers breathless and buzzing, but for those who appreciate that simple moments can and often do contain enough food not just for thought but for a philosophical banquet, films like “Boyhood” through to more clearly avant-garde pieces like “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” are more than fulfilling; provided that the viewer sets aside a moment or two to truly ruminate on what they’ve seen and consider how it interacts with their own understanding of life.
Chewing on “Boyhood”, it is noticeable how deeply confusing and easily demoralising human temporal perceptions can be. By the time one hour of film time has been and gone it becomes obvious that Ellar Coltrane, the actor portraying Mason Jr, has aged and that several months or years of filmic time have passed (as is the case for his sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelai Linklater), but because the march of time is not marked with title cards, a certain degree of nearly imperceptible anxiety flits around like a gnat, at least in this viewer’s gut. Consider that moment when one [in the secular West] realises that the [secular Western] year which had seemed so long on January 1st is suddenly once again preparing for the Christmas-NYE closing out bonanza. How terrifying it is to think that time can appear so slow yet progress so rapidly, and that these two states of awareness – that life is on one hand a grind and on the other a breathless hurtle towards death and immateriality – seem to rarely coexist in harmony with each other, or rather, that most people find it difficult/impossible to appreciate both of these relative truths simultaneously. It’s probably a simple matter of relativity, the kind taught in basic high school physics. Perhaps the person who can get a handle on the fact that living is like sitting in a jetliner at cruise speed – still, slow and potentially tedious in the moment but shooting through space-time from another vantage point – will find themselves in a better place emotionally than does Mason Jr’s mother Olivia at the end of “Boyhood.” Unlike Patricia Arquette’s character who – as admirable a job as she does as nurturer and breadwinner – seems to spend the duration of the film’s twelve years trying to ensure that she will one day look back and be satisfied that she ticked all the boxes, whatever these boxes might be, Mason Jr appears more content with letting life happen to him, to the point of passivity at times. Luckily, he does develop some passion, some drive to counteract his innate tendency to just chill, but is nonetheless content to enjoy the plane ride, second by passing second, rather than constantly review the flight map to see how much time is left till the next destination, the next stage in life. In this sense, Mason Jr is very much like his father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), who on one hand appears to be the clear underachiever of the two parents but who, by the film’s closure, may very well enjoy an overall more dynamic and quite possibly more fulfilling psychic arc. Initially seeming to exist in a fishbowl of ‘moments’ whereas his ex-partner Olivia is much more aware of the general flight plan of a ‘successful’ adult life, Mason Sr, while he may not end up levitating in a state of luminescent enlightenment or swimming in materialistic success, may be the happier and more contented of Mason Jr’s parents, or at least the one who can state with some certainty that the ellipses in his personal story, while unseen by the viewer, did not go unseen, unappreciated or unlived by him. Somehow it seems that Olivia’s final outburst may have something to do with her feeling the acute loss of her own little moments, moments she may have sacrificed in order to raise a family and forge a successful career but which nonetheless add up to a nagging, ethereal sense of disappointment and anticlimax. As for the boy of the titular hood, Ellar Coltrane’s spot-on, low-key performance of the decidedly low-key character of Mason Jr (is Ellar low-key because Mason Jr needs to be low-key or is Mason Jr low-key because Ellar is low-key or does Ellar become low-key after years of intermittently playing low-key Mason Jr?) throws into sharp relief the degree to which his boyhood is a peculiar composite of two parenthoods, one sisterhood, a couple of step siblinghoods, two shitty stepfatherhoods and the childhoods of his friends and peers. For this reason, “Boyhood” is a lucid expression of experiential symbiosis as a key factor in the development of men, women and children alike. In other words: what separates Mason Jr’s boyhood from Olivia’s motherhood? Well, this movie doesn’t seem to take too much notice of any such distinction.
If “Boyhood” has one limitation though, it’s that its success as a film has an overdependence on viewer investment; and if it has one weakness, it is not the use of pop songs as a marker of date and the passage of time (though the soundtrack is far more nuanced than it initially appears to be), but that the film could be catnip for those whose appreciation of art is somehow related to how fitting said artwork is as an expression of their lives, their experiences, their milieu, their sentiments; their childhood. But even as a simple means to take one’s reminiscences and sun-drenched memories for a long walk, which unfortunately seems to be the case for too many of this picture’s champions, the film still hinges on the gentle alchemy of personal experience which, in comparison to an unseemly majority of cinematic product, cannot be that bad an outcome. Whereas many movies function by dousing audiences in sound and image, oftentimes even emotion or intimations of it, “Boyhood” seeks to draw upon whatever reserves of empathy and tendencies for reflection exist within its individual viewers. For this single feat, it earns its plaudits twofold.
Brief impression: “Force Majeure”
November 14, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s just a ‘simple’, straightforward rear tracking shot of a seemingly archetypal upper-middle class Western European family – mother, father, daughter, son – skiing steadily down an iridescent, perfectly manicured white slope at the Les Arcs ski resort in the Alps, but it’s a moment of magic, visual, technical, thematic…all of it. One by one, the four Swedish holidayers cruise into frame in gentle swoops and dips until they, as a group, have established themselves as the focus of interest, which can’t be that hard in so bland – though prettily so – an environment. As if floating on the arm of a Steadicam attached to an operator firmly strapped to a snowmobile with the most exquisite suspension system, the camera then calmly follows them for what seems like several minutes of tracking perfection: not a jiggle, not a blur. At first there may be the slight anticipation of something dramatic happening to disrupt this very sedate picture, but it becomes clear that this won’t be the case and the eyes are suddenly drawn to the way in which the skiers weave in and out of each other’s paths, at times threatening to drift apart but always remaining comfortably in reach. There’s something hypnotic, something reassuringly monotonous about the whole thing, and one can only assume that this sense is shared by the people on screen. But at the same time there is something oppressive about the way Ebba, Tomas, Vera and Harry seem to orbit each other, or maybe disrupt each other’s trajectories, as though their adherence to a certain cultural concept of what a functional family unit looks and feels like ultimately limits each member’s individual potential. They’re like electrons circling some unseen nucleus, moving according to their own intrinsic energies but unable to escape altogether, the result being an internally discordant but externally cohesive whole. In fact, only a few minutes of film time prior to this scene, the classic foursome is being coached by a resort photographer on how to appear happily familial and natural about it. Needless to say, the results are awkward, which only works to inform the dynamic that will be suggested in the tracking shot to come.
In a wonderfully astute interview of writer-director Ruben Ӧstlund by Film Comment magazine’s Violet Lucca, the Swedish filmmaker makes mention of the mid-twentieth-century concept of the ‘nuclear family’ and how it may have been – may still be – a sad evolutionary step in Western humankind’s move towards a more individualised (narcissistic?) approach to living, and with this particular shot it’s as though director of cinematography Fredrik Wenzel has enabled Ӧstlund to craft a pretty direct visual pun with regards to the ‘nuclear family’, one which smartly and succinctly forestalls what may very well be the core concern of “Force Majeure.” But it’s the film’s showstopper scene – the one which sets the dramatic ball rolling and the one everybody simply can’t not talk about – that highlights the fact that this movie is interested in exploring the inherently unstable human tendency to try to find a harmonious sweetspot where the primal and the aspirational can meet, or at least collide under controlled conditions.
Ebba, Tomas and their two prepubescent children are on a five-day skiing trip which – Ebba explains to a fellow holidaying Swede that she meets on day one – is a rare opportunity for busy breadwinner Tomas to focus his full attention on the family for whom he apparently works his ass off to win bread. The interesting thing about this particular ski resort is that ‘controlled’ avalanches are a regular part of maintaining the generous snow cover that makes for a comfortable, gentrified skiing experience – as well as doubling as some sort of sideshow spectacle. So while lunching outside, one of these ‘controlled’ avalanches occurs and the diners and onlookers all turn to watch or raise whatever video-capable device they own, Tomas included. Something then occurs which anyone who has seen Julia Loktev’s marvellous “The Loneliest Planet” might be able to guess. The beauty of this scene – apart from its purposefully spare composition and thrillingly detached execution, proof that restless filmmaking is not the only way to preserve and present the visceral power of a moment – is that it is a near literal face-off between two examples of mankind’s desire to somehow exercise a degree of dominion over forces of nature that often prove to be more difficult to subjugate or manage than expected: instincts of self-preservation, maternal drive, the basic physics of a tumbling mass of snow, and fear, amongst others. It’s the perfect point from which to launch into what is a fairly on-point examination of a particular type of western lifestyle (heteronormative but gender-progressive, monogamous, nuclear) and how the social structure supporting this mode of living is almost a kind of containment chamber which keeps certain elemental but undesirable human tendencies in check, albeit tenuously. In a way, “Force Majeure” has a certain kinship with a novel-film duo like Lionel Shriver/Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need To Talk About Kevin” which dares to skewer, or at the very least question, the generally held expectation that all mothers embrace motherhood without there being any room for feelings of resentment, self-loss and frustration. Likewise, “Force Majeure” takes to task the expectations placed upon certain roles within a tightknit social structure and, in doing so, insidiously disassembles the illusions upon which a very pervasive mode of western living seems to be founded. Are Tomas’s actions during the avalanche unnatural or are they just undesirable within the social construct of which he has chosen to be a part? When Ebba is chatting up an acquaintance in the hotel restaurant only to learn of this acquaintance’s open marriage and consequently killer sex life, does her indignation stem from a sincere belief that marriage should be strictly monogamous, or is she desperate to defend the conventional marital approach that she has (presumably) adhered to in spite of her actual attraction to and desire for the alternative that this lady has offered up? It’s interesting to note that the tension between Tomas and Ebba only truly escalates as a result of his denial of his actions/lack thereof. Does this imply that somewhere, deep down within her, Ebba believes that her husband is simply a ‘normal selfish white alpha male’, and that she is okay with this? Or does Tomas’s shocking behaviour simply concur with her already held impression of him lacking dedication to his family? Perhaps this shattering of Tomas’s image enables Ebba to momentarily acknowledge (in her own mind) that she may in fact be tired of him sexually/emotionally, and that she craves some kind of respite even if in the shape of a Brady Corbet toy boy, which she will of course never permit herself to enjoy. Either way, it’s only after Tomas’s sadly humorous catharsis on the hotel room floor that he and Ebba decide to resuscitate the marital image that they came so close to losing. As is the case in “Gone Girl” in which Mr and Mrs Dunne – after Amy Dunne’s Machiavellian viciousness is made evident to Nick and Nick Dunne concedes his douchebaggery to Amy – conspire to continue their toxic marriage in the interest of who knows what (image? Security?!), in “Force Majeure” it’s only after Ebba bears witness to the true wretched confusion residing within her husband’s soul that she can presumably forgive him and allows him to reprise his role as Protector and Provider, the role he has to-date so poorly played, if only for the sake of their children and their enormous superegos.
With his 2011 film “Play” and this 2014 follow-up, Ruben Ӧstlund seems to be working his way towards a place amongst a select group of filmmakers who in one way or another utilise cinema as some sort of hypothetical social laboratory or model, constructing situations with specific stresses and specific parameters and then tossing in a bunch of human characters in order to observe how they behave. Accordingly, the director takes a steadily observational approach that favours longer takes, fewer cuts, spare camera moves and dialogue that oscillates between the incisive and the evasive. One filmmaker that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of cinematic social experiments is Luis Bunuel (“The Exterminating Angel”, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie ”) with Mike Leigh, Michael Haneke, Yorgos Lanthimos and maybe even Lars von Trier being more contemporary examples. This assertion, as much as it is a way of praising Ӧstlund’s directorial chops and his socially relevant approach to cinema, also brings with it the burden of disapproving audiences who are wont to decry any film that they consider cruel to its characters, mean-spirited or unsettlingly distanced. The image of a misanthropic creative intelligence needlessly and gleefully ‘torturing’ fictional humans, which has often been attached to both Haneke and von Trier (though certainly not Leigh), may not haunt Ӧstlund just yet, at least not on the basis of his filmography to date. While “Force Majeure” is all too aware of the painful hilarity of its proceedings (as evidenced – for example – by the belly-tickling use of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Summer”, a piece which would be instantly recognisable to fans of HBO’s Larry David vehicle “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) and while it indulges in this very comedy for both its entertainment value as well as for its social commentary potential, it never does so inconsequentially and certainly not haphazardly. It’s all very…controlled. But if, for whatever reason, Ruben Ӧstlund’s directorial career does not take flight and soar in the way that a work as consummate as “Force Majeure” would suggest, he should consider finding work at an alpine ski resort like Les Arcs, sending snow a-tumbling down mountainsides with perfectly-timed explosions in order to terrify, thrill, and occasionally tip a nice, well-off, heteronormative family into a necessary state of crisis, the crisis that they simply need to have.