At the press screening for “Downhill” I was reminded that “Force Majeure” was a comedy. I was surprised; that’s not how I remembered it. “Downhill” is the US version of the “Force Majeure” with enough similarities to be recognizable and yet attempts were made to fit the story unquestionably in the comedy category.
At home, I immediately streamed “Force Majeure” on Amazon Prime Video. Sure enough. There might be a few uncomfortable titters if you watch this film with friends, but “Force Majeure” is a comedy in the sense that Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull” is except in “Force Majeure” no one dies, but death, or rather, the possibility of death is what tears apart a couple.
“Force Majeur” is Latin for superior force and can mean “an event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled.” Legally, it has another meaning.
Force Majeure clause is a provision in a contract that excuses a party from not performing its contractual obligations that becomes impossible or impracticable, due to an event or effect that the parties could not have anticipated or controlled.
In both “Force Majeure” and its English-language remake, the event is a controlled avalanche.
In “Force Majeure,” Swedish businessman Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his Norwegian wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), their young daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren) and preschooler Harry (Vincent Wettergren) are at a luxury resort in the French Alps. I personally didn’t notice the different nationalities of the couple, but the film is in English, French, Norwegian and Swedish.
The family is having lunch outdoors on a terrace. Tomas begins filming the avalanche on his cellphone, but the rising powder makes it seem like the snow will engulf the people at the cafe. Harry is screaming and clinging to his father, but Tomas shakes himself loose of Harry and with cellphone in hand, runs away, leaving his wife and kids. The white out clears and eventually Tomas comes back and pretends nothing was wrong. Later, he pretends that he didn’t run away. When they entertain guests, Tomas continues to insist he did not run. Ebba insists that he play it in front of their embarrassed guests. His own video proves he did and that sets a shadow over the marriage.
Yet in the end, we learn that the marriage had always been troubled. Tomas later weeps and admits to Ebba that he hates himself, that he cheats when he plays video games with his kids and he has cheated on his wife. The audience laughter here is likely to be one of extreme discomfort.
“Force Majeure” made its world premiere at Cannes and received the Jury Prize in 2014. It won Best Film at the 50th Guldbagge Awards.
“Downhill” tries to more explicitly belong in the comedy category, relying heavily on its two stars: Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Yet film has a tortured quality to it.
Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and Pete (Ferrell) are on a ski vacation with their kids Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob). Billie is a lawyer. Pete is a businessman who spends too much time watching the free flowing adventures of is co-worker Zach (Zach Woods) and his girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) on social media. His kids are annoyingly boisterous and seem undisciplined, but they are much older and capable of more independence than the kids in “Force Majeure.”
The staging of the avalanche panic attempts excuse Pete more than Tomas. In “Force Majeure,” the outdoor cafe seating was more like a cafe. The table is against the railing and the foursome are seated perpendicular to the rail. In “Downhill,” the seating is picnic style with the table parallel to the rail. Both kids and the wife have their backs to the rail. Pete is on the outside, sitting on the bench that is parallel to the rail. When the powder rises, Billie shelters her kids under each arm, like a bird spreading her wings. Pete grabs his cellphone and runs.
Billie’s anger is evident. The kids’ disappointment in their father is reflected in a sudden sullen quietness. Billie decides to complain to the people in charge of the ski resort safety, charging into ugly American territory. Eventually she does let her anger out when Zach and Rosie drop by “unexpectedly” but actually Pete invited them.
Both Pete and Billie will have an opportunity to be unfaithful. Pete seems more willing. Ultimately, the couple attempts to deal with Pete’s cowardice, but not in a way that makes the marriage seem healthy.
In both films, the wife will meet a woman who is on a vacation from her marriage. This is played for laughs in “Downhill” as the woman (Miranda Otto) is awkwardly forward and frank in her sexual pursuits. In both films, the female half of the couple who get to witness the emotional showdown disapproves of the husband’s cowardice.
This film isn’t funny enough to be a good couple film, but it might be good therapy for anyone involved with a cowardly love interest. Take the film as a warning or take my warning and give this film a pass. There are better films to watch and this won’t help anyone cuddle up in cozy coupledom.
“Downhill” had its world premiere at the snowy Sundance Film Festival on 26 January 2020. And is a strange entry on to the Valentine’s Day fare, opening on 14 February 2020.