Force Majeure Dir. Ruben Östlund

[Magnolia Pictures; 2014]

Styles: neurotic bourgeoisie, Haneke
Others: Caché, Play

With its single-minded focus on the disintegration of a bourgeois nuclear family and its rigid, somber aesthetics, director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure risks falling into self-parody in its first moments, as the Swedish family begins their vacation at an ominous ski mountain. Despite its original title translating as simply “Tourists,” the film takes as its English title a French phrase that describes state takeover of private land, which seems to be a cognizant understanding of this potential self-parody as a sort of dare, utilizing its cold aesthetic plan and standard-issue (though always relevant) laceration of the wealthy and white as the framework for a distinct form of incisive comedy.

It’s not, however, the sort of comedy that jumps out immediately, with the film sticking to its rigorously post-Haneke guns for much of its initial sequences, which culminate with the family engulfed by a surprisingly harmless avalanche while eating lunch in a beautifully static long take. Snow obscures the frame entirely and then dissipates, as the father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) flees the scene and abandons his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two children, only to sheepishly return, still hobbling in his ski boots. From here, the film moves into far more diffuse territory, as the couple fight over their understandings of the event, with Ebba describing in an increasingly drunken misery her husband’s hasty exit over Tomas’s increasingly pathetic protestations to an expanding circle of old friends and near-strangers.

To avoid falling into hoary psychological drama, the trick employed here is to simply pull the camera back. Östlund isn’t afraid of closeups, but at key moments, he pulls his camera into a carefully framed long-take long-shot, placing the couple’s heated machinations within an embarrassingly public sphere, their internal discord clashing either in the presence of their children or in public — or, in one recurring and quietly damming motif, their own reflections in a Nordic-modernist bathroom mirror. As Tomas’s guilt grows and his self-composure weakens, the film tends toward near-absurdist tableaux, his children piling on top of him in a parody of familial misery, his endless tears and over-the-top self-loathing resonating to decidedly comic effect in the uncaring expanses of the hotel interior. What might have read in another formal context as a Euro art film demarcation of male impotence and angst registers here as a parody of that angst, the larger circumstances and overwhelming sense of embarrassment — for both the viewers and the onlookers — rendering his emotional journey as the essential parody contained in any display of real contemporary male panic over his role in the nuclear family. Whether or not Tomas knows it and whether or not the public or the private spheres are privy to it, it’s a distinctly performative performance.

The plot, such as it is, gets more obtuse as the film progresses, eventually leaving the immediate rupture opened by the avalanche and into more general territories of marriage under late capitalism. But it never reaches a point that would place it outside the concerns of the contemporary family drama, with Östlund and his actors relying fully on their technique to maintain the crucial distancing that keeps his film afloat. It’s that distancing and the specific modes utilized to obtain it that lend the film’s comedy its distinct flavor, achieving a strange Tati-esque space wherein individual audience members determine the timing of their laughs rather than having those moments provided for them. But aside from the placement of the camera, Östlund’s style has little to do with Tati’s comedy of planes, which relies on spacing a number of jokes throughout the depth of field; Östlund, in contrast, favors depth as an isolating mechanism and a careful withholding of actor frontality. This mode of simultaneously open/closed emotional space allows each viewer to determine exactly when the film flips from drama to comedy, resulting in an odd yet satisfying mix of overlapping empathy and half-stifled derision throughout the theater.

Force Majeure’s aims are admittedly minor in some ways — its still a Euro art film and follows much of the prerogatives of the mode, and its still an evisceration of the bourgeois family by fairly standard emotional terms — but it’s encouraging to see that there is still life left in those forms. By flipping that mode’s tools into comedy while remaining faithful to its basic rhythms, the film opens up to new areas, suggesting that the white nuclear family in the contemporary age is perhaps better approached as structurally hilarious than inherently sad, without denying the reality of its participants entirely.

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