‘Downhill’: Faux Majeure

Here’s a quote I’ll use again and again, from South-Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s acceptance speech for Parasite winning Golden Globe’s Best Foreign Language Film award in January:

“Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”


Downhill is a case in point. If one is willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier called subtitles (they are in English, mind you), one will be amazed how true and powerful and entertaining the Swedish film Force Majeure (2014) is, and that watching the Ruben Östlund directed original would likely reap the most enjoyment and provoke some deep thoughts. Maybe an American version isn’t needed to begin with.

Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, with the Oscar nominated Jesse Armstrong as co-writer, if they’re to make an American version, there could have been potential for a fresh take. Force Majeure‘s literal meaning is a superior force, an unavoidable, overtaking power. Here’s the premise of the movie, which in itself is an interesting case for discussion:

A well-intentioned family holiday at a ski resort for bonding is shattered as the result of an instinctive reaction on the part of the husband/father. It happens when a controlled avalanche strikes a little too close to his family sitting at an outdoor dining table, he runs for his life while his wife huddles and protects their two boys. What follows is the underlying current of discontent and anger of the wife’s surfacing like a geyser. 

The producers must have seen the potential comedy in such a scenario. One of them is Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Emmy and Golden Globe winning comedy actor, and a fan of the original Swedish film. Playing the wife Billie, Dreyfus shows she has her heart in it. In several scenes, she’s effective in bringing out Billie’s frustration. However, the issues of the movie are beyond her control, a real case of force majeure?

First is the casting of the husband Pete with Will Ferrell. Surely, for a comedy, Ferrell would be a natural choice. Call it irony, the indifferent demeanor Ferrell gives out as an actor in this movie actually parallels the husband Pete’s attitude, as if he’s being dragged up the ski hill. Have cell, will travel. His phone is what he’s resorted to as companion on a family holiday that he’s not ready to go on.

Pete’s work friend Zach (Zach Woods) and his girl friend Rosie (Zoe Chao) happen to be near where they vacation, so Pete secretly texts them to come over to their hotel in the guise that it’s their initiative to drop in. Here’s a pair of supporting roles if given more to play can add substance and context to the thin storyline, but they don’t have the chance. In the original Force Majeure, this couple plays a crucial part, especially with Kristofer Hivju’s performance as Mats, who’s full of humor. Hivju is also in Downhill, but only with a very minor role as the ski hill manager.

Other issues pervade, the script could well be a major one. As a comedy, there’s not much for laughs. It presents a problem but doesn’t delve into it; a comedy doesn’t mean superficial treatments. As a film that’s supposed to capture a sporting vacation, it lacks energy. No wonder the kids are so bored. The title is prophetic; I’m sure that’s unintentional. 

If an American version is the intent, then make it truly American, tell an American marriage story with this scenario. With Downhill, however, the European location, the ski resort surroundings, the actual scene of the controlled avalanche mishap, the set design, even the teeth-brushing moments in the hotel bathroom look almost the same as the Swedish original, other than the fact that the actors speak English. With its loose editing and scattered thematic matters, Downhill looks more like a parody of Force Majeure than a stand-alone comedy on its own.


~ ~ Ripples 




CLICK HERE to read my review of Force Majeure


Force Majeure (2014): Act of God or Act of Human

As I’m writing, this just popped up: Force Majerure (Sweden) is now one of nine films shortlisted for the Oscars Foreign Language Film category, advanced from the initial round with features from eighty-three countries. Soon, this list will be further shortened to make up the five nominees for the 87th Academy Awards. Nominations will be announced at 5:00 a.m. PT, January 15, 2015.

Force Majeure

I watched Force Majeure at TIFF in September, a second time again this week as it comes to our local theatre. Please note, it is impossible to discuss this film in an intelligent manner without mentioning the storyline. Therefore, consider yourself warned. Spoiler Alert. But let me assure you, this won’t lessen your enjoyment of the movie; rather, it could prepare you for a more purposeful viewing.

‘Force majeure’ in translation means ‘an overwhelming and irresistible force’. Director Ruben Östlund tells his visual story based on this notion. A young family goes on a week of skiing holiday in the French Alps, a much needed family time as the husband has been busy at work. What is intended to be a fun family vacation is turned into something totally unthought of, making this one of the most original film ideas I’ve come across in years.

The slick and stylish camerawork begins with a close-knit family. Mom and Dad Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) look like a well-matched couple; their pair of school-aged children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) are smart and charming. All four of them sleep together on one King-sized bed in the resort hotel, wear the same style of underwear, brush their teeth in one accord, do everything together, until one split-second their view of each other is shaken to the core.

Family photo

The ski resort conducts controlled avalanches to maintain the ski slopes. At lunch on the second day, the family sits at a table in the outside terrace, taking in the spectacular scenery. Suddenly a controlled avalanche is launched. At first, everyone is curious and excited, marvelling at the sight. But soon the avalanche appears too close for comfort. Panic begins to send people scattering away from their tables.

Ebba grabs her children, but with two of them, she looks for Tomas to help. Tomas in the mean time is nowhere to be found, for he is the first one to run away from their table. Sounds hilarious? The scenario can be quite comical actually, but that only sets the stage for a critical look at a marriage relationship, and with that, the duties, roles, and expectations of a husband and a father.

Director Östlund aptly presents to us a situation worthy of discussion. What deserves praise is the way he does it: with deadpan humour, slick editing, stylish cinematography and clever dialogues. The music motif captures the mood perfectly with excerpt from Vivaldi’s Four Season, where the intensifying summer storm brewing, and soon wreaks havoc on what could have been a perfect family holiday.

As Ebba relays the embarrassing episode to friends Mats and Fanny, superbly played by supporting actors Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius, the scenario soon divides the two couples along gender lines, and divergent and conflicting views regarding male and female roles and dispositions ensue. Suppressed chuckles in the theatre could well be the intended effects by the director, but I couldn’t help but LOL at certain shots.

Tomas’s earlier denial is later dissolved into concession as he declares himself ‘a victim of his own instincts’. What an intriguing claim. Are we autonomous agents fully responsible for our own actions, or victims of our personality? I first thought the term Force Majuere refers to the avalanche, but as the story unfolds, I begin to see it as the force within, our innate nature, as Tomas puts it, the impulse that drives him to act a certain way. The term ‘controlled avalanche’ is perhaps the most intriguing oxymoron inferring to the nature of our behaviour.

The final act may look a little incompatible with the rest of the film. However, I feel it is a sensitive and nuanced depiction of this thing we can call ‘humanness.’ What’s joining us all is our frailty. A quote from another movie suddenly comes to mind: “The things that people in love do to each other they remember, and if they stay together it’s not because they forget, it’s because they forgive.”

An interesting scenario presented in a visually captivating and delightful cinematic offering. I hope Force Majeure will make it to the final cut in the Oscar race. And, my instinct tells me it just might.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


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