Fantastic Fest 2014: Force Majeure

Perversely funny Swedish film asks: Are you man enough?

Just who do you think you are? Those seven little words in a string typically signal a taunt or a sneer. But in the blackly funny, lightly brutalizing Swedish film Force Majeure, they mark the collective cri de coeur of a husband and wife perched on the lip of a major existential crisis.

At a high-end resort in the French Alps, a family of four goes about their holiday, eating, skiing, snuggling in matching thermals – the picture of banality. Sure, there are squabbles: The kids – a boy and a girl, both under 10 – get cranky when they’re hungry, and their parents, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), snipe a little, too, in tiny tendrils that tease more fundamental frustrations (she thinks he works too much, he just wants to relax). But nothing to worry about. They’re still a family – a unit.

On their second day of vacation, during a passing moment of peril (let's keep it vague), a decision is made – or, more charitably, a body’s automatic response takes over. Nature punches nurture in the face, and for the rest of the film, the family tries to recover from the blow. Or not: A fresh scab is hard not to pick at.

Writer/director Ruben Östlund is aces with both the human scale and the biblically awesome, making great use of the mountains’ vast, blank snowbanks and vertiginous drops. All is menace. The sound design distorts the everyday to become grotesque – amplifying a chair lift’s grinding gears, an electric toothbrush’s angry hum – while the soundtrack puts on heavy play Vivaldi’s thundering “Summer” concerto. That choice may seem counterintuitive (summer? in this weather?), but it’s devastatingly effective; at some point, I began to flinch whenever it queued up, in the same kind of Pavlov’s (kicked) dog response I had to Wagner in Melancholia.

There is also the matter of the nightly bombings. The resort detonates regular explosions, meant to trigger controlled avalanches that will smooth the slopes. Their shuddering effect is the sensation of living in a war zone – which, in a way, the family now is. The theatre of war is the ruined sense of identity, and Östlund chews on the idea from every angle, exploring the disconnects between who a person thinks he is and who he actually is (the illusion of self may be most essential), what others think of him, and how gender expectations inform (deform?) the whole mess. It’s the latter concern that gives Force Majeure so much kicky energy, even more so when Östlund introduces another couple for a second, more comical referendum on male-female relations. (That said, I couldn’t buy a third-act twist, even as I admired its sneaky subversiveness.)

The film gets its biggest laughs – and there truly are some grandly bleak belly-shakers here – by upsetting the apple cart on traditional gender roles. When those roles are seemingly restored, the men’s chests practically inflate three sizes. They shouldn’t get so comfortable: Östlund, a kind of grim mischief-maker, is already sharpening his stick, readying for his next kill.

Force Majeure screens again Monday, Sept. 22, 11:30am.

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Fantastic Fest, Fantastic Fest 2014, Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund

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