Review: Force Majeur – disaster on a domestic scale

With three young kids, two jobs and a wife who prefers the novel-like development of a DVD boxset to the novella-like intensity of a feature film, I don’t get to watch as many movies these days as I’d like to. If it were up to me, I would watch at least two a day: old, new, subtitled, silent – anything that isn’t CGI or animated (I get plenty of opportunity to sit in on those).

As it is, I’m lucky if I get the chance to catch one or two films a week, and as such I often waste the first half an hour of the time I have agonising over which film to watch.

Because these days you have to choose carefully.

So much of what Hollywood produces currently is dross. There has always been a steady flow of sewage beneath the spring, but to my mind the stench of late has got an awful lot stronger.

I’ve lost count of the recent ‘serious’ (read, best-picture-contender) films that have been a disappointment, from Selma to American Sniper to Boyhood to 12-Years a Slave to Birdman: films that could have been great but have relied on their source material to grant them import and/or haven’t been able to escape the sticky lure of sentimentality. Action films are either lazy re-boots or tedious superhero advertorials, and as for comedy . . . I’ve laughed at plenty of Hollywood films since the 1980s. But there have been very few I’ve left the cinema smiling about.

All of which has meant that, by and large, the only really interesting films that have emerged lately are those that have been made independent of the major Hollywood studios or by film industries outside America’s. One that gripped me utterly this week was Sweden’s Force Majeure.

I’m a sucker for disaster movies and – I’ll be honest – I thought that’s what I would be getting. It’s my own fault for judging the DVD by its cover, I suppose, and for barely skim-reading the back (I try to chose the films I watch without learning too much about the plot: an enticing six-word overview and a 7+ rating on IMDb and I’m sold).

But Cliffhanger this ain’t. The disaster in Force Majeur is of a purely domestic variety and the film is all the more impactful for it.

A Swedish family takes a skiing trip in the French Alps and something happens that shatters the illusion they’ve been projecting – to the viewer, to those around them – of family unity. There’s no hiding any more, from their friends but most acutely from themselves.

It’s a gripping, fascinating watch. The film is beautifully shot, not least the central, plot-defining scene. The acting is utterly convincing (the children aside, if I’m being harsh), the direction astute, but what impressed me most was the level of understatement. Take that central scene, for instance. It lasts, what? Thirty seconds? And the important bit is over in a blink. And the point is, that’s all it needs. Christopher Nolan, take note.

If endings are your thing, I’ll concede you may be disappointed. Ruben Östlund, the writer and director, gives in a little to the urge to create symmetry – to bring the story full circle – in a way that, to me at least, didn’t entirely convince. The fifth and final act of the film is unquestionably its weakest.

But as a depiction of a family in crisis – of a husband’s struggles with modern living, and a wife’s, and the impact the parents’ faltering relationship has on their children – it’s a masterpiece. With subtlety and dexterity, it deals with themes ranging from what it means to be a man/husband/wife/mother, through the nature of truth, to domestic toilet-set politics.

Force Majeure is funny, frightening and, in a beguilingly simple way, complex. The way life is, not the way Hollywood blockbusters so often pretend to be.

Posted on Friday, July 17th, 2015 at 10:57 am

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