Sweden (2014) Dir. Ruben Östlund
Over the past few years Sweden’s Ruben Östlund has carved a niche out for himself as a master of the bleak, gritty confrontational domestic drama, covering many themes from racism and bullying to Downs Syndrome to peer pressure. Force Majeure sees Östlund spread his wings in terms of ambition and production while transposing his trenchant observations from the suburbs of his native Sweden to the picturesque landscapes of the French Alps.
Businessman Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two young children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) are on holiday at a luxury ski resort in the French Alps. Initially they are having fun, with Tomas on strict instructions to ignore his phone, something he struggles to comply with.
On the second day a controlled avalanche is executed while the hotel guests are having lunch on the balcony restaurant. The overspill of snow dust from the avalanche causes panic, with many people fleeing, including Tomas which angers Ebba as she stays with the kids. From hereon in the family balance on the verge of a break up as Tomas refuses to acknowledge his actions.
It’s a remarkably simple, almost barebones premise to build a two hour drama around but Östlund manages to pull it off, although he doesn’t resist the lure to take advantage of the snowy surroundings for some stunning visual interludes. Of course anyone who has visited this location or seen any of the many films shot there will know this isn’t an opportunity to pass up.
The budget for this film is clearly a vast upgrade from what Östlund previously had at his disposal, reflected in the quality of the photography and the sheer scope of wide open spaces he uses in contrast to the intimacy of his prior works. Yet his ability to create a contained drama inside such spatial freedom is to be praised, perhaps suggesting you can take the man of out of the city…. Ironically Östlund found inspiration from viral YouTube clips of real life incidents, some of which he incorporated into the script.
Looking at the story in isolation and it seems like a petty thing for Ebba to get upset about but an earlier swipe she jokingly takes at her husband while signing in at the hotel, saying Tomas has five whole days to focus on his family, exposes a long held frustration for Ebba. Things are off to a good start until the avalanche but it is not just Ebba and Tomas affected by this – the children are aware of the fighting and shun both their parents, even kicking them out of their room so they can talk it out.
If you find any laughs in this film they are subtle, ironic or bittersweet as Östlund takes a Bergman like cleaver to Tomas and Ebba’s marriage while inadvertently threatening to wreck another relationship, that of Tomas’s friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his hippie girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). The catalyst for this is the male ego and the pressures of living up to being a hero in the eyes of his family, which is Östlund’s true target; Fanni tells Mats that she thinks he would run just like Tomas did which upsets him.
Meanwhile Ebba is wondering who her husband is if his phone and gloves are more important to save in a snowstorm than his own family, suddenly undoing all of the material comforts he has given her and the kids. Tomas’s wounded pride forces him to suggest that Ebba is only seeing things from one perspective, an arrogant piece of sophistry that stokes the flames of contention between them.
Östlund has littered this film with many metaphors which you can interpret as you see fit, although the main one the family essentially heading down a slippery slope without the ski poles to stop them is the most obvious and deliberate one. He has never been one to be forthcoming with backstories or in depth exposition for his characters or the plots, his style of letting everything unfold as it is being an effective one in capturing the moment.
Visually this is the most impressive of Östlund’s films thus far and not just due to the splendour of the setting although he has gone to great lengths to capture it at its most pristine and enchanting. There are also some key scenes shot in the most unusual way, including a brief reconciliation between the distant spouses shown via a blurred reflection in a window or a dinner scene in which Ebba sits right in front of the camera, blocking everyone else from view.
However, the highlight is the avalanche scene, a mixture of CGI and practical effects to create a stupendous site of absolute majesty. Shot with just one camera in a wide shot, the snow slowly rolls down the mountainside building to a huge crescendo, from which the dust from the crash rises up and over the restaurant, obscuring everything in a white cloud which gradually evaporates and we’re back to normal. A simple yet stunning scene, it ranks as one of the best you’ll see all year.
Many of the cast will be unfamiliar to us outside of Sweden thus we are able to fully invest in the characters without any high expectations from the actors. The chemistry of the family unit is a credible, in part to the youngsters being real life siblings, and what a joy they are too. Their nascent understanding of acting keeps everything grounded while the two adult leads, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Kuhnke, carry the heavy dramatic load.
Running for almost two hours, Force Majeure is a less immediate film compared to Östlund’s earlier outings but from the avalanche onwards he has us hooked with this tightly wound drama. Perhaps in need of some prudent trimming of the peripheral material, what we have here is a frank lesson in understanding others as well as understanding ourselves.