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CANNES — Instead of rescuing his kids, a sporty Swedish father of two runs for the hills when faced with an avalanche on a ski trip in Force Majeure (Turist), the latest confrontational and sharply observed feature of Swedish provocateur Ruben Ostlund.
The filmmaker, back in Cannes after the 2008 Un Certain Regard-selected Involuntary and the 2011 Directors’ Fortnight title, Play, is still as fond as ever of creating situations in which his characters are confronted with the worst or most unexpected side of themselves, though like in all his films, the ugliness is not the subject but the pretext for the story, which here painstakingly examines the aftermath of a man’s instinctive, split-second decision to save his own skin — instead of his own kin — and how the perpetrator and those around him try to make sense of this revelation.
Though the two-hour film should’ve ended a reel or so before it actually fades to black, this is another solid and provocative feature from Ostlund, which should extensively slalom down the festival circuit and attract the attention of niche distributors not afraid of films in the conversation-starter mode.
Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of over-sharing, Swedish skiing tourist Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) explains to another female Scandinavian tourist at a chic Alpine hotel why she’s there with her husband (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and pre-teen kids Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren): “We’re here because Tomas works too much; he’s going to dedicate five days to his family.”
At this point, they are still unaware these will be five very long days, as the photogenic family — immortalized in all their Ikea-catalog cuteness by a photographe touristique in the opening scene — will have to live down the aftermath of an unexpected event that happens during lunchtime on their second day: A “controlled avalanche” is rapidly approaching and might possibly engulf the outdoors terrace of the restaurant they’re eating at, causing Ebba to take the kids and try to protect them from harm and Tomas to get his iPhone and gloves off the table and run.
Both are clearly shaken by the event, which in the end didn’t cause any bodily harm, though the young couple’s rapport suffers what looks like irreparable damage. It’s not even immediately clear to Tomas that he’s done anything wrong and he’s (at least outwardly) puzzled when the kids are mad and his wife gives him the could shoulder.
Things take a turn for the worse during dinner, when Tomas and Ebba are joined by the woman Ebba talked to in the morning and an Italian, “non-atheist” skier she picked up that very day on the slopes. After the required niceties are exchanged — which Ostlund records in meticulous detail, as they can be just as telling as moments of naked truth — Ebba confesses what happened during lunch, though Tomas initially laughs it off and then vehemently denies he ever ran away.
In the subsequent days, husband and wife try to find a workable entente, and there’s talk of agreeing on a “shared version” of events that both can live with. But Ebba’s knowledge that she’s married someone who is good-looking, works extremely hard and adores their kids but who becomes a selfish monster when push comes to shove seems to slowly poison the possibility of any type of future reconciliation.
When a couple of Norwegian friends, the divorced Mats (Kristofer Hivju, from Game of Thrones) and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius), come for a visit, they find themselves drawn into the couple’s argument in a way that one senses the director hopes is also the case for the audience, as they start to question what they would do in a similar situation. In typical Ostlundian fashion, what’s so terrifying is not what one thinks of oneself, since people find it very hard to be hard on themselves, but the realization that other people might think we are not always the best people we can be, even hypothetically speaking. In the case of Mats, it literally gives him sleepless nights.
Ostlund and co-editor Jacob Secher Schulsinger carve up the action into five parts that correspond to the days of the family’s holiday, with the events interspersed with short segments, set to Vivaldi at his most tormented, that showcase the man-made machines that operate at night and are intended to keep the slopes in optimal conditions by day. Not only do they first foreshadow and then recall the pivotal “controlled avalanche” — itself a contradictory term that goes right to the heart of the material — but they also visually suggest one of the main themes: the idea that humans try to control both human nature and nature at large, though both prove to be quite indomitable at times.
Acting is close to naturalistic even in scenes that feel slightly surreal, such as when Tomas finds himself in a club, celebrating with a group of almost naked and very drunk men, all strangers reduced to cavemen, though with better quality drinks. Even the characters’ big emotional outbursts feel, within the context of what they are going through, quite natural. The kids are also extremely well-cast, looking fragile and tiny with their ski gear on, with their pale, big-eyed faces popping out from underneath their huge protective helmets that’ll only keep them safe from bodily harm.
Like in his previous work, Ostlund displays a preference for lengthy and rigidly composed fixed shots, though as the film progresses, the camera occasionally starts to moves a little — a little zoom here, a small pan there — to suggest that nothing is again like it was before. Cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, with the help of a special effects team, beautifully integrates all the snow and mist effects where necessary. Though the film was clearly a modest production, there is never a sense that Ostlund’s vision was compromised.
The film’s only real hiccup is the finale, in which the tourists go home. The entire sequence, which features the family as just a small unit within a much larger group, might be trying to extrapolate what it has just shown on a larger scale but instead the opposite happens, as the events and dynamics don’t jive with the film’s general sense of a large, uncontrolled event having a devastating impact on an extremely intimate level.
In Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Production companies: Plattform Produktion, Parisienne, Coproduction Office, Motlys
Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Writer-Director: Ruben Ostlund
Producers: Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson, Philippe Bober
Director of photography: Fredrik Wenzel
Production designer: Josefin Asberg
Music: Ola Flottum
Costume designer: Pia Aleborg
Editors: Ruben Ostlund, Jacob Secher Schulsinger
Sales: Coproduction Office
No rating, 118 minutes.
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