Originally published on thedistantcloseup.com (Feb. 14th, 2017)
Can you remember a family vacation that was so distinctly horrible that it stands out in spite of all of your attempts to block it from memory? If so, then maybe you’ll be able to identify with the hapless Swedish family so unfortunately trapped in familial hell in the 2014 film Force Majeure. ‘Force majeure’ is a term often used in contracts to free all parties from liability in the case of an unexpected event, but it literally translates to ‘chance occurrence,’ which is certainly one way of putting the predicament the husband, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), and wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), find themselves.
In the film, a Swedish family on vacation in the Swiss Alps has a once in a lifetime experience in the worst way. While having lunch, a resort-controlled avalanche that doesn’t appear so controlled causes a panic, and presumably upon instinct, Tomas runs away from the table without helping his wife or children. When it is certain there is no danger, a cloud of unbearable tension hovers over the couple, and pretty soon a marital dispute turns into a battle of the sexes. Just as you’d expect from the premise, Force Majeure revels in the discomfort it provides its audience and is more than humorous enough for those whose tastes are dark enough.
The first thing anyone will notice about Force Majeure is its almost overwhelming use of long takes. Not only does almost every shot in the film last for more than a few seconds, even going on for minutes, for the most part, the camera is completely stationary and only moving slightly during particular moments in the narrative. From this, we can infer that director Ruben Östlund is intent on making you notice every detail and forcing you to pay attention even when you least want to. Some might find such directing infuriating, but it’s for a greater purpose.
Östlund may find it necessary to strictly use long takes with a motionless camera, but his film is still two hours long. So considering his narrative is specifically broken down into a day by day time frame, it’s clear his desire is to make every viewer feel as uncomfortable as possible as this couple continues to let its primary argument steep for days on end until it can no longer be contained. It’s a naturalism that works in spite of Östlund’s often hyperbolic use of dark and even somewhat surreal humor, having us sit in on the arguments and philosophical conversations about human nature.
In fact, that’s what Östlund wants more than to make us, as the audience, feel uneasy in our seats. He wants us to be casual observers of this trainwreck because he is such a casual observer. With such frequent use of long takes, Östlund’s style is distant enough that his film is fully aware of its being a film. As a result, us viewers are kept at a distance as well, and even though there is a clear right and wrong in this particular situation, Östlund asks us to remain impartial as the couple works through their dilemma. And in a strange way, it’s the humor, dark as it may be as well as the well-written characters, that ensures such neutrality.
It takes a committed artist, or perhaps even a committed jerk to consistently create a work in such a way that constantly asks its viewers to feel perturbed during the viewing experience, never comfortable for moment. Thankfully for Force Majeure’s case, Ruben Östlund is that unapologetic jerk. There have been talks of an American remake involving Julia Louis-Dreyfus as one of the lead performers. If this project comes to fruition, in the interest of preserving the Nordic dryness of Östlund’s comedy, just let it be written by Armando Iannucci. I will gladly take Veep in the Swiss Alps any day of the week.