Arts and Books

Film Review: An Alpine drama that deserves an avalanche of awards

Trouble ahead: A scene from Force Majeure

Paweł Pawlikowski’s film Ida was the deserved winner of the Oscar for best film in a foreign language this year – while Force Majeure was unfairly left off the nominations list. At least its brilliance was recognised in its homeland, as the Swedish Film Institute awarded it a glittering stack of prizes at its annual awards, including best film and best director for Ruben Östlund. Now British cinema-goers have the chance to catch this superb work.

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are a happily married couple taking their children skiing in the French Alps. They sit down for lunch on their first day, and a controlled avalanche causes a thick snow cloud to engulf the mountain restaurant. Tomas’s self-preserving reaction to this supposed disaster is the trigger for a film that is at once a tense family drama and a comedy as black as they come, despite Force Majeure’s pristine winter setting.

After the haze clears, Ebba’s anger at her husband emerges slowly, initially in a brilliantly awkward scene at a dinner she and Tomas share with a fellow hotel guest and her male companion. When the criticisms continue in the presence of Tomas’s friend Mats and his young girlfriend Fanni, Östlund suggests that unhappiness is infectious. Mats and Fanni have stepped into their own personal avalanche and end up embroiled in a separate (but no less magnificent) circular argument.

We see a succession of disquieting moments. A remote-controlled flying toy suddenly hovers in the night sky like a UFO and, with a soundtrack of blaring classical music, the mountains seem to take on a terrifying life of their own. As well as posing questions about masculinity, love and memory, Force Majeure shows that we are all, to some extent, at the mercy of both the world around us and our own human nature.

There’s more Scandinavian fare this week in the shape of Jauja, a bizarre Western that arrives from Denmark via Argentina. The film is set in 1882, with Viggo Mortensen playing a Danish general searching for his daughter in the wilds of Patagonia. The scenery is beautiful but the atmosphere is defiantly grim, despite one terrific joke at the halfway point when Mortensen’s general tells us in no uncertain terms what he thinks of his surroundings.

Dogs wander around strangely and there are repeated scenes of a parched Viggo drinking water (take that heavy winter coat off, man!). There’s also a scarcity of dialogue, the thinnest of plots, and philosophy-lite is provided via voice-over.

Many will be maddened by Jauja, perhaps with good reason, but, mainly because of Mortensen’s enigmatic presence, I found this singular stagger into a heart of darkness oddly compelling.

Force Majeure (15) 5 stars
Jauja (15) 3 stars

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (10/4/15).

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