Cannes 2014: Östlund's Brilliant Ski Vacation Comedy 'Force Majeure'
by Alex Billington
May 18, 2014
I never would've thought I might encounter a ski movie comedy at Cannes, and that it would be something I could call brilliant, yet every year I'm surprised by discoveries and this is another that will go down as one of my favorites of this festival. From Sweden comes a film titled Force Majeure, or also known as Turist (in French) at the festival, a dark comedy set in the French Alps following a family on a ski vacation. Directed by Ruben Östlund, who made two Free Radicals ski movies back in the 90s, the film plays with human dynamics and our responses to situations, but is enlivened by hilarious dark comedy. I really loved this one.
In the very minor subgenre of skiing comedies, there are a few classics like Hot Dog The Movie, Hot Tub Time Machine and the zany Ski Patrol, that will likely never be topped. But along comes Force Majeure, a film that is not only as funny if not funnier (in a very dark, deep way) than those movies, but much more intricate and subtle in its approach to characters and relationships. In the film, the plot revolves around a family on a ski vacation that experiences an avalanche that heads straight towards a restaurant they're eating lunch at. It turns out to be a close call and no one is harmed at all, but it's enough of a scare to change their family dynamics for the rest of the trip, creating endless arguments and discussions. Hilarity ensues.
First things first, Force Majeure gets the skiing side of things right, without anything being exaggerated or overdone, making this one of the only movies I've seen in recent years to do so. It was shot up at a resort in the French Alps, and everything from the skiing itself to the lift riding to the on-mountain interactions to avalanche control and operations to equipment is spot on perfect. As an avid skier who grew up going to the mountains every weekend, getting these kind of details accurate (and not blowing them out of proportion in any cheesy way) is not only refreshing, but actually very exciting to see. It made me wish I could be out on the slopes in some fresh powder tomorrow. This all obviously comes from Östlund's own skiing background.
Beyond all the skiing details, Force Majeure has a brilliant script that delves into many ideas of connection, relationships, social interaction and natural human reaction to fear. The family, made up of Johannes Bah Kuhnke & Lisa Loven Kongsli as husband & wife, and Clara Wettergren & Vincent Wettergren as their young daughter & son, goes through some turbulent times following the avalanche scare, yet they still end up going out for four more days of skiing, and every day is more entertaining to watch than the last. Much of the comedy comes from very natural character humor, but also through the arguments they get into, which go from absurd to amusing to ridiculous to fascinating and back in no time. Pay close attention.
The film's brilliance comes from the way the ethics discussed span the entire film, rubbing off onto another couple and ending with one final confrontation that connects everything they've been experiencing, distilled down to a perfect scene that wraps it up neatly, tossing the boots on the rack to dry. At times the film seems a bit long (which made me more concerned that mainstream audiences might not be able to make it all the way to the end) even though the pacing works well and the characters are engaging. Aside from that minor gripe, Östlund has put together an incredibly entertaining ski vacation disaster dark comedy that balances drama/humor precariously, like carving right through a narrow chute in fresh pow (without causing a slide).
Östlund has hit a home run with Force Majeure (I realize that reference doesn't make sense but who cares), not only bringing to Cannes one of my new favorite genre-bending dark comedies, but I'm now a fan of his work as well, and I get to explore his past films and learn just how talented of a filmmaker he really is, while keeping an eye on his career. I'm so glad I ended up seeing this and discovering a film that is impressively reflective and carefully planned, yet also totally and thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. Bravo, Ruben.
Alex's Cannes Rating: 9.5 out of 10