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.

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