Force Majeure (aka Turist) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Skiing was always one of my favorite sports as a kid, perhaps because I enjoyed the independence of zooming down a snowy hill. It was the perfect getaway from parents to clear your head and think for yourself. But for the family of four in Force Majeure, isolation is the last thing that they need. It breeds a sense of doubt and uneasiness for a family that appears on the brink of a divorce. Their ski vacation at a massive mountain retreat is anything but when forced to approach their own instincts. The photo they pose for in the opening scene, smiles and all, is merely the exterior of something more fearful.
The spark that brings about a wave of questioning results from a morning breakfast on the patio of the resort. A series of controlled avalanches hits too close and assaults the poor family with a wave of falling powder. As the frightening wave consumes the patio, we hear the brother and sister call out to their father Tomas. Like those around him, Tomas panics and scurries to safety without his family. After a minute or two of white haze, the guests shuffle back to their tables to resume their meals after a frightening ordeal. The mother, Ebba, is naturally angered that her husband would leave them behind. But she bottles that anger up temporarily as Tomas just shrugs off the event as if he did nothing wrong. The brother and sister are just annoyed and disturbed by their parents making more mistakes.
Ebba instead decides to unload her frustration during dinner with another couple. When relaying the events of the avalanche, Ebba harps on how cowardly Tomas behaved during this situation, favoring his phone over his son. But Tomas still believes he didn’t do what Ebba attests, arriving at the conclusion that they both have a Rashomon style reasoning of the account. They both try to let the issue go with a hug, but that feeling simply cannot be shaken. The two of them have some difficult aspects of their marriage and themselves to deal with, but a ski vacation with the family does not make the best environment for rekindling (at least at first).
Director Ruben Östlund doesn’t side with either the man or the woman, pulling the viewer back to witness the scuffles of marriage from a distance. It stages a traumatic what-if and let’s the emotions flow with the audience awkwardly distancing themselves. Most of the time we see the couples talking in the hotel hallway is from another level, sharing the same view as the voyeuristic janitor. Other times in the scene we’re placed right in the middle of the trainwreck. Tomas has a massive breakdown in front of Ebba and we see the closeup from her perspective. The camera is mostly where we want it to be for these scenes; close enough for the informative bits, yet distant enough for when things get too personal.
The entire film is gorgeously shot from the Swedish mountain resort. Östlund let’s us take in all its silent beauty, broken up by small burst of distant explosions for controlling avalanches. We can feel the isolation and desolation from an endless land of white. Characters often become lost in all the snow be it from long-shots at a distance or the windy kick of powder creating a fog. Little moments of the trip are given some time to breathe in the ambiance. The ski rides up the hill, via rope towing the children or the escalating chairs for the adults, are all kept quiet with the characters given much time to dwell on their own thoughts. The kids bring along a drone toy that they fly outside the window during the evening hours. The first night features the entire family sleeping in the same bed, a scenario every parent is familiar with.
Force Majeure is a film that’s hard to pin down in its exact tone, but it delivers on the stylish examination of human instinct with flying colors. It holds on its subject and never lets go. Tomas’ old pal tries to defend his friend when presented with the facts, but that only leads to another argument in which Tomas’ friend bickers with his young girlfriend back at their hotel room. Such scenes give the impression that, no matter how secure we may feel around others, there’s always a coat we wear for shielding something inside we hate. Östlund doesn’t want to strip his characters down to this level of base beasts, but he wants us to acknowledge this personality and come to terms with the masks we wear. Through that offbeat examination, a family learns to become better people, no matter how awful they believe they appear. One can only hope such a film does more good for a couple than those silly what-if couples games that often breed similar fights of awkwardness.