Film review: FORCE MAJEURE, from Built For Speed

Force Majeure is a refreshingly unusual Swedish film that dissects the institution of marriage to examine issues of guilt, blame, masculine identity and parental responsibility. 

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are an attractive 30-something Swedish couple with two young children. They appear to be the perfect family; they even clean their teeth together in front of the mirror like something out of a toothpaste commercial.  Their seemingly ideal world is shattered, though, during a skiing holiday when the outdoor restaurant at which they are having lunch is hit by a small and ultimately harmless avalanche.  As the snow heads toward them Tomas runs for his life leaving his wife and children behind much like George Costanza during that fire at the children’s party. While the couple initially attempt to overlook the incident, the unspoken tension between them inevitably erupts into a conflict that threatens to destroy their marriage.

The expression “force majeure” is a legal term referring to a situation in which unforeseen circumstances or “acts of God” like natural disasters make it impossible for someone to fulfil the terms of a contact.  The implication here is that marriage and relationships are a kind of business transaction bound by a contract which imposes responsibilities on each party.  With Tomas seemingly unable to fulfil the confident male role in this unwritten contract the parties seem unsure of how to behave toward one another.

Force Majeure cleverly captures the uncertain nature of Tomas and Ebba’s lives through its visual style.  The film is full of clean lines and pristine images that suggest the deceptively flawless surface of Swedish middle-class life.  The film’s smooth surface is often broken, though, by strange jarring interludes such as Tomas suddenly finding himself at a drunken rave with a horde of maniacal, shirtless, drunken men, toy drones flying into a room and of course the avalanche.  Despite some startling moments the film does, however, adopt a deliberately and at times irritatingly slow pace with some exceptionally long shots in which little happens.

The film hinges on the strange and fractured relationship between Tomas and Ebba and for the most part the two capture this tenuous bond superbly.  As Tomas, Johannes Kuhnke seems like too much of an amiable goofball at first but he ultimately delivers a powerful and emotional performance filled with agonising guilt. Lisa Loven Kongsli has an intense brittle quality as Ebba as she tries to fathom her husband’s behaviour.   The film also makes good use of the supporting cast particularly Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius as Tomas and Ebba’s friends whose relationship feels the impact of Tomas and Ebba’s conflict.  Clara and Vincent Wettergren also convey quite unsettlingly the fear and trauma experienced by children watching their parents’ marriage disintegrate. 

With a couple of ponderous scenes the film occasionally loses its powerful grip but this is a mostly intelligent and confronting look at relationships that recalls great interpersonal dramas such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Drama/ Foreign language.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Ruben Östlund.

Release date: 16th Oct 2014

Running time: 118 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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