Ruben Östlund is a tricky, shifty fellow. With his fourth feature, Force Majeure (released in Sweden as Turist), he unleashes an emotional avalanche that forces everyone, on-screen and looking at it, to ask hard questions about contemporary society, about all the stuff that is supposed to regulate our social compact with the world we live in.
Guess what? No one gets out of this unscathed. Especially not Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli), the well-off bourgeois couple whose dream vacation on a French ski resort unravels from a single unexpected moment neither of them thought would ever come to pass. Mr. Östlund's film is not so much scripted or directed as it is exactingly set up, displayed and deployed. It's a laboratorial experiment made feature film, placing seemingly innocuous lab rats inside a carefully controlled environment: in this case a modern bourgeois nuclear family and a perfectly designed resort where nothing is expected to go wrong, shot in long takes that keep the human factor perfectly framed within a series of corridors and glossily alluring surfaces.
Into this uneasy combination of theme park and Kubrickian hotel (yes, you cannot not think of The Shining), shot with a piercingly attentive camera, Mr. Östlund drops the bomb, like one of the Jurassic Park dinosaurs escaping their enclosure: an avalanche that seems to threaten the lives of the holiday-makers congregating on the outside terrace restaurant. Tomas' reaction is unexpectedly to flee for safety entirely disregarding wife and kids. From the initial unease about the incident - not so much a close call as a false alarm, a big scare that reminds everyone there's no such thing as a risk-averse environment - the observation of the subjects' reaction can begin.
Mr. Östlund mercilessly leads us through the progressive cracks Tomas' attitude opens in his relationship, while launching a thought experiment-cum-investigation of the central tenets of modern-day social contracts that leaves no stone unturned and no viewer unmoved (whether for bad or for good). That Mr. Östlund's hyper-precise formalism, halfway between glacial Kubrickianism and the sly satire of the modern Austrians (halfway between Haneke and Hausler), and his no-nonsense narration does not fall into dry, distastefulness comes from his commitment to the actors, who energize the entire concept with powerful performances that humanize the characters and create the necessary empathy for Force Majeure to make its insidious way in. So insidious, in fact, that as the film arrives at its pithy, twisty epilogue, you realise the answers to the questions it asks remain pretty much open-ended, and its central issue may never be resolved to everyone's content.
This isn't a film; it's a slow-release truth serum that keeps working in your mind long after the screening ends.
Sweden, France, Norway, Denmark, 2014
Cast Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius, Karin Myrenberg Faber, Brady Corbet, Johannes Moustos
Director and screenwriter Ruben Östlund; cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel (colour, widescreen); composer Ola Fløttum; designer Josefin Åsberg; costumes Pia Aleborg; editors Mr. Östlund and Jacob Secher Schulsinger; producers Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson and Philippe Bober; production companies Plattform Produktion in co-production with Film i Väst, Rhône-Alpes Cinéma, Société Parisienne de Production, Coproduction Office and Motlys
Screened April 26th 2015, Lisbon (distributor DVD screener)
Trailer FORCE MAJEURE from Coproduction Office on Vimeo.