Force Majeure

April 14, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Ruben Östlund‘s Force Majeure opens on the ski slopes as an official ‘tourist photographer’ sets up his shots of an attractive, affluent Swedish couple and their two children. All look happy enough to begin with, but they need to be posed and rearranged into perfection, arms linked, smiles fully powered so that the end result can exude spontaneity. This little joke is the film’s sunniest moment. Thereafter the light seems too subdued for the French Alps and deeper shadows intrude on family happiness.

A well composed photograph makes a satisfying pattern. A fiction’s depth and complexity can depend on its patterning, the subtlety of its internal echoes, the emergence of its hidden design. Force Majeure is in part about the contrivance of perfection. Östlund’s dismantling of it has an intricacy of its own.

This is first apparent in the film’s visual patterns: the architecture of the resort hotel isolated on its mountaintop, a giant luxury chalet with rooms rising round what appears to be an atrium, everything in pale wood; the ski slopes themselves, smoothed pristine every night by powerful machinery; the procession of liveried cleaners, all of whom seem to be men, vacuum cleaner tubes slung casually around the neck. Throughout, the camera lingers on such surface images, while often delimiting what we see. They are integral to the life of the film, not just decor for what happens in it.

The event that sets things in train has potentially disastrous proportions. The Swedes, Tomas and Ebba, are eating lunch on the hotel’s busy restaurant terrace with little Vera and Harry, the food tasty, the view sublime. A sudden loud bang bothers no one since the continuous management of the natural environment involves sporadic blasts of sound to trigger controlled mini-avalanches. The distant frenzy of snow is merely photogenic until all at once it rushes close, high and engulfing. In the ensuing panic Ebba grabs the children to protect them just as Tomas reaches for his phone and runs. Danger evaporates into mere residual snow plumes, but the damage is done. Tomas’s cowardice has ruined trust, provoking Ebba’s anger and, when he refuses to admit that he acted as he did, her punitive contempt.

How this betrayal affects the couple and their children, Ebba’s attempts to confront Tomas over embarrassing meals with friends and acquaintances, the escalation of the crisis and its possible progress towards reconciliation, entails some fraught soul-searching and moments of dark comedy. A few precision-fashioned close-ups suffice to invoke the Bergmanesque stillness/intensity of films like Persona or Scenes from a Marriage. These are either irony or fleeting homage; and Östlund loves jokes, sometimes visual gags like the family’s harmonised electric tooth-brushing, which descends from mild Tati-style commentary to being a measure of discord.

Close-ups are used with varied intent: a tight shot of a dinner table will frustrate our efforts to make spatial sense of a room or a whole apartment; a wider shot with sharp focus on two actors will reduce everything else to a blur. This has the effect of an airless claustrophobia made all the more pronounced by the towering vastness of landscape outside. Out on those slopes we see how precarious everything is, how dependent on clanking chairlifts and shivering cables that have to be maintained by unseen labour. The snow-brightened darkness of an aerial view suggests the hubris of taking on nature.

Middle-class complacency is a clear target, along with the high-scale commodification of holiday, ski gear, technology, but Östlund has more in his sights. The spectacle of fragile masculinity shored up by a bit of laddish outdoor bonding only underscores what we’ve already seen of the flight from responsibility. Comedy hits home but can quickly be displaced by the sight of the characters’ raw distress (in particular that of the children). Rapid shifts in tone take things beyond satire. He aims to unsettle. There’s a lurking unease that has resonances of Michael Haneke’s Hidden. But here, no unseen hand waits to strike, just an intermittent witness from the class whose labour underlies the whole Alpine edifice: one of the male cleaners on a cigarette break, watching from across the atrium whenever Tomas and Ebba sneak out in their minimal nightwear to have a ‘talk’ without disturbing the children. They resent his eyes on them; he ignores their pleas for privacy, remaining silent and impassive. He could well be a figure out of Buñuel.

Among the film references there’s an echo of a novel too. In Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain the TB sanatorium sits high above the seasonal ski resort, functioning like a luxury hotel for its well-heeled patients. Östlund’s hotel guests are physically healthy but they bring with them other ills. From both establishments departure is difficult. Despite the intertitles that take us through the film day by day, ultimately time resists logic, and perhaps there’s a hint of this in the out of focus international clocks on the wall behind what looks like reception. Both book and film incline ever steeply towards the surreal as they near a conclusion. Force Majeure’s ending is a triumph of bourgeois tribulations that would surely cheer Buñuel’s still unvanquished spirit.

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