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article imageReview: ‘Force Majeure’ skillfully puts a couple under the microscope Special

By Sarah Gopaul     Nov 1, 2014 in Entertainment
‘Force Majeure’ is the unembellished portrayal of a couple in crisis after an unexpected event rocks the foundations of their marriage.
Historically there have been a number of great films depicting a marriage compromised by some irreparable event. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? features two of the best performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as their characters sort through years of pent-up resentment during a small dinner party. Beautiful Boy and many like it portray couples buckling under the strain of grieving for a child. No one ever said marriage was easy and the multitude of problems that can arise make it a wealthy source for screenwriters. In Force Majeure, a family vacation tests the strength of a relationship after they emerge from a near-death experience.
A family vacation in the French Alps is exactly what they needed. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) promises not to work, devoting the entire week to Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and the kids. A tourist photographer captures the happy group as they head to the slopes, which is followed by a family nap. Things couldn’t be better — until lunch takes an unexpected turn. A controlled avalanche heads straight for the rooftop restaurant at which they’re dining. Panic sweeps through the eatery and everyone runs for their lives — everyone including Tomas, who leaves Ebba stranded with their two children to face possible death alone. When the dust settles and it’s revealed there was never any real danger, no one mentions what just occurred. But it’s not something easily forgotten either.
Ebba seems irritated after the incident, but refuses to acknowledge what’s bothering her. It’s not until she has a couple of glasses of wine at dinner with friends that her tongue loosens. She begins to recount the incident as if she’s relaying a funny anecdote, but her tone changes when she gets to Tomas’ reaction. He’s shocked at her version of events, convinced he’d never abandon his family. With all the chaos and a bit of misdirection, it’s possible for viewers to misinterpret the situation too. But this isn’t an example of two sides to every story — there is only one truth and a second viewing proves Tomas is on the wrong side of a losing argument.
This is a stripped down picture that forgoes the bells and whistles in favour of an unprocessed emotional depiction of a marriage in conflict. Mounting tension in the daytime drives them into the hallway of the chalet at night, attempting to shield their children from the divide currently pushing them apart. The camera is placed at a distance, watching them as if from the perspective of another guest happening upon the couple — or through the eyes of the night custodian seen observing them on more than one occasion. After the excitement of the speeding snow cloud, any sense of enthusiasm is drained from the narrative. The family is rarely pictured together in the frame anymore and in spite of an agreement on a unified front, the fracture between the couple is widening physically and emotionally. In spite of their efforts to protect their children, its effects on them are always detectible as well.
The Scandinavian picture has a dry sense of humour that allows for laughter even in this sombre narrative. When Ebba and Tomas’ troubles trigger an argument between another couple, it’s impossible not to find the absurdity of their debate funny. Suddenly the argument shifts from one about gender roles to generational differences, leading an older man to feel subordinate to a younger man he feels is his inferior. The freshness of their relationship makes the conversation lighter, though it’s addressing similar issues of trust.
The stark camera work matches the raw nature of the script. Kongsli’s portrayal of a woman no longer confident in the strength of her marriage is authentic. Kuhnke captures the mostly silent, masculine response to a situation that he feels questions his manhood, only to counter it with a startling emotional outburst. The honesty of both performances provide the intensity required to complement writer/director Ruben Östlund’s very direct and calculated style.
Director: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Clara Wettergren
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