With Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, and Brady Corbet; Written and directed by Ruben Östlund; Rated R for some language and brief nudity; 118 minutes.
It all comes down to the electric toothbrushes.
That irritating hum of mechanized oral hygiene is cranked to ear-splitting levels during the ritualistic family brushings we cut back to time and again in FORCE MAJEURE (aka “Turist”), writer-director Ruben Östlund’s mordantly hilarious tale of a bourgeoisie Swedish couple torn asunder by an unexpected act of cowardice while on vacation in the Alpine valley.
At first glance, the blandly attractive Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Konsgli) appear perfectly happy and profoundly uninteresting, dragging their two young pre-teen towheads along for a ski trip at a tony French resort. Everything is all very moneyed, polite, and frankly rather tedious; until one morning over breakfast, when an avalanche comes a little too close for comfort to the lodge’s balcony café.
Ebba dives for the kids and clutches them dear. Tomas grabs his gloves and his cell phone–then he turns and runs like hell. When the snow clears, everybody is safe and sound. Daddy Dearest sheepishly returns to the breakfast table and shrugs it all off like nothing ever happened. But Ebba saw. The kids saw. Everybody saw.
What follows is a squrimingly funny deadpan comedy of emasculation. Tomas first tries to deny it, but Ebba is suddenly guzzling wine and blurting out the whole story to strangers over dinner. The kids retreat into their iPads. It’s readily apparent now on which side Tomas’ fight-or-flight instincts fall, and the heartbroken Ebba just can’t stop herself from picking at his vanquished masculinity like a scab. Resentments fester. Worse of all, they seem to be contagious–the couple’s closest friends arrive for a visit only to find their own relationship knocked off its axis by the aftershocks of this avalanche that only appeared to cause no casualties.
I realize that I have described “Force Majeure” as a comedy, but be forewarned: there aren’t any actual jokes, per se. The pitch-black humor erupts at odd moments during awkward pauses, prompted by Östlund’s droll, dispassionate gaze at all these roiling caveman emotions tamped down for appearances’ sake in such a fussy, affluent locale. Those electric toothbrushes take on an amusingly symbolic weight as noisy instruments of useless modernity. Recurring appearances from a poker-faced janitor at times turn the film into a farce about just how goddamned impossible it is for a couple to have a conversation alone when traveling with the kids.
If any of this sounds familiar, you might be thinking of “The Loneliest Planet,” director Julia Loktev’s mesmerizing 2012 mood-piece in which Gael Garcia Bernal earned the title of Worst Boyfriend Ever during a hike in the Caucasus Mountains. The two films would make a fine double feature, as they’re similar stories told in strikingly different registers. Östlund keeps a chilly detachment from the proceedings.
Though occasionally punctuated with blasts of Vivaldi that play like aural punch-lines, the soundtrack mostly sticks to abnormally amplified ambient sounds–these silences are indeed deafening. He and cinematographer Wenzel back up the camera to stress the smallness of these messy characters amid their pristine, opulent surroundings.
Even the mountains are manicured; these slopes carefully tended with snow-making machines and the booming reports of cannons fired at the resort to set off controlled avalanches. This illusion of control and its subsequent undoing is what gives “Force Majeure” such a sickly kick. That and the toothbrushes.•••
Over the past fifteen years Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Boston Herald, Nashville Scene, The House Next Door, Time Out New York, EntertainmentTell, Philadelphia City Paper and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.