Majestic, awesome, sublime. Ah, the triviality of human existence compared to the aloof grandeur of the Alps. Words and thoughts along these lines are what the carefully stereotyped photography of two much discussed new films seem to want to provoke in us. To provoke and then dismiss. The point would be some sort of historical commentary. The romantic sublime left its viewers speechless. The contemporary sublime looks like a set of postcards and everyone talks (or weeps) constantly. We don’t believe in triviality, least of all our own, and have to keep making a fuss about why everything matters. Humility is not an option. Humility is humiliating.
This is what the films in question, Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure and Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria, appear to say, although it’s not entirely clear that it’s what they want to say. Both films have subtle, interesting moments and both in the end abandon all subtlety for much clunkier effects and suggestions. Maybe it’s the mountains. The directors, romantics after all, worry about the competition.
Force Majeure, which won a Jury Prize at Cannes last year, is billed as a dark comedy, but might be more accurately described as a melodrama that makes some people laugh. It made others, at least in the London cinema where I saw it, shout, ‘Stop laughing,’ and ‘What are you laughing at?’ There was something pretty nervous about both reactions. The film starts with a set of family photographs being taken: father, mother, daughter, son together, all just as contented and young and healthy-looking as they are supposed to be. They are Swedish and on holiday in the French Alps. The static, orderly images continue: landscapes, sky, aseptic hotel that seems to be all corridors, family comfortably piled in large bed. When things move they are usually mechanical: ski lifts, snowploughs, vacuum cleaners. This is a world not only without surprises but designed to cancel the very idea of surprise. Skiing is not an adventure, just a slide in a nature park. Even the avalanches are controlled, as we are informed several times: small explosions shift the snow around. ‘They know what they are doing,’ the father insists, reassuring his family. The snag is that they don’t, quite – and nor does he. An avalanche comes too close to a terrace where hotel guests are eating; everyone is afraid. The screen goes white from the snow or spray, we see only shadowy human shapes, then no one. But fear assumes different forms. Ebba, the mother in the family (Lisa Loven Kongsli), reaches out to protect her children. Tomas, the husband (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), grabs his phone and wallet and runs off. The spray subsides, the guests stop cowering, Tomas returns.
It seems at first as if Ebba only wants Tomas to acknowledge his defection – she can then help him deal with his guilt. But he denies there was any defection, won’t admit that he took off. She can’t accept this, gets more and more distressed, tells friends about Tomas’s vanishing act. The friends, Mats and Fanni, an older man and his young girlfriend, try to help with sententious generalisations (could happen to anyone, and the like), but are manifestly appalled, and the one genuinely funny scene in the film follows from their discussion. In bed that night Fanni is wondering whether it really could happen to anyone, even to Mats, and he is indignant that she could even wonder. He spends the whole night complaining about the insult. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, even when he doesn’t, or isn’t asked to. Mats’s spurious consolations to Tomas include the words ‘force majeure’, suggesting that he had no choice but to run off, and this insinuates a quiet irony into the film’s English title (in Swedish it’s called Turist). Force majeure is what you call danger when you can’t face it – as Ebba does face it, for example. Tomas, I should say, is at this stage not even reaching for this argument. He is not admitting that he did run off.
So far the film is properly intriguing, and combines the stilted setting and the awkward situation into a sort of portrait of moral and emotional ineptness: of people who have no idea what to do when they lose the plot of their own wonderfully predictable lives, when their clichés let them down. Their helplessness is both moving and exasperating. I wasn’t laughing (or shouting) but I was squirming. And then Östlund makes what must have been the worst of all the possible choices available to him. He decides that the man who has failed the great masculinity test, in his wife’s eyes and finally in his own (he does later admit to his departure), must first collapse into a weeping, self-accusing heap and then get a second chance: not to prove his courage but to hoist the masculinity myth back into place. He rescues Ebba in the snow (even if he does have to abandon the children to do it), and sympathises with her when she too becomes afraid (as their bus is being driven, badly, down the mountain). He even feels free and relaxed enough to have an unecological cigarette. There is a hint of irony or at least distance from the solution in this touch on the director’s part, but generally the film doesn’t question the cosy old mythologies. It prefers them to any sort of scrutiny of motive or meaning.
Clouds of Sils Maria opens with Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche, an actress in her prime (this would be her view) or a little past it (this would be her fear) on her way to take part in a celebration of the work of an elderly writer she knows well. He dies before she gets there, and his death provokes, apart from a change in the mood of the celebration, a new production of a play Maria starred in long ago. But in that version she was the dynamic young woman caught up in an affair with a desperate older one. Now she is persuaded to play the older woman, whom she suddenly finds more interesting, full of complications and questions. By the end of the movie, she is staring at a younger version of herself who tells her that the older character, and no doubt older people in general, are just as irrelevant as the young Maria herself once thought they were.
Maria is blowsy and feminine when we first see her, becomes rather boyish for her new role, giggles a lot in both incarnations. There is a life and bounce to her that denies her worries about age. Her relationship with her American assistant, Valentine (Kristen Stewart), is the best thing in the movie, full of affection and aggression, and written with a throwaway elegance that much of the rest of the film sadly lacks. We might think that in this relation between an older woman and a younger one we see the story that the old play should be showing and isn’t.
Unfortunately the play itself – discussions of it, rehearsals for it – takes up a lot of space, and it doesn’t escape the blight that awaits almost all works of art within works of art: they become just metaphors for something else, displacements, like dreams, and in this case the very idea of acting all but disappears. Of course Maria has to work on her lines, get the right tone and speed, seek certain effects, but there is no question that this is about the delivery of a self-projection, an identification, not an impersonation or a disguise. We’re already watching this production of a person in the movie itself; why would we need to see it twice, the second time in a poorly lit mirror?
The other large problem in the film is its caving in to symbolism. Those alps. The clouds. There is an effect in the region called the Maloja Snake – this is also the name of the play Maria is returning to. At certain moments the clouds wind down the mountain valleys like a slow, lightweight avalanche or a white, puffy river. They look like a picture of time in its most benevolent mode, a procession from past to future without break or hurt. Maria goes to watch the snake effect with Valentine – it is Valentine who has the map and knows how to get to the best place to look – but as she watches in appropriate admiration Maria realises she is alone. Valentine has not come all the way with her, and in fact has left her for good. Maria screams Valentine’s name, the clouds pour slowly down the valley. We try to concentrate on Maria but the clouds win out. The effect of Force Majeure is reversed. Tomas ran from the snow. Assayas runs into the clouds, away from his heroine.