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Film Review | Turist

Swedish family psychodrama attempts to slip in some social comedy into the proceedings, with mixed results.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
1 June 2015, 8:30am
Playing happy families: Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli
Playing happy families: Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli
We all know the Tolstoy quote about all happy families being alike, and all unhappy families being unhappy in their own way. And sure enough, tons of fiction before or since Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (where the quote comes from) has capitalized on the family’s – particularly the nuclear family’s – tendency to wound, implode and haunt.

Granted, many fictional families across various media are also portrayed as important points of reference for characters, or at least sources of comfort during troubled times.

But we can’t ignore the swathes of writers who have taken advantage of the fragile familial arrangement to wrench memorable stories out of them, in genres that can range from horror to comedy.

Perhaps playing somewhat to cultural stereotype – which could sadly be one reason why it secured international funding and distribution – with Turist (aka Force Majeure) Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund presents a glacially ambiguous take on the family unit, one whose seams come unruffled during a supposedly idyllic skiing holiday.

A Swedish family takes a holiday to the French Alps to enjoy a few days of skiing. The glistening, snow-capped setting certainly doesn’t disappoint, but the after-effects of an ultimately harmless incident nearly threaten to destabilize the family for good.

When a placid lunch is interrupted by what looks to be an avalanche, mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) scrambles to protect her children, while father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) runs for his life, even stopping to pick up his phone and gloves.

Though the supposed ‘avalanche’ turns out not to have been an avalanche at all and causes no death or even injury, Ebba cannot shake off the implications of Tomas’s reflex actions.

 

This plummets the family into a psychological crisis, with an already neurotic Ebba teetering on the edge, while Tomas is left brooding about his integrity as the family’s supposed figurehead.

From the photography to the mise-en-scene, this is a remarkably well-poised film. Östlund gets plenty of dramatic mileage from placing our characters in luxuriant isolation, which lends an additional layer of irony to their growing familial troubles. The pristine white mountains are matched by the five-star hotel in which the characters play out their strained dramas, frequently under the watchful eye of a chain-smoking cleaner.

This setup is ideal for the kind of takedown of the middle class nuclear family that we’ve come to expect from celebrated literature and film, and though Östlund’s take doesn’t exactly offer up any original insights, some intriguing questions about the characters’ choices are put forward, so that at the very least the film will leave some sort of aftertaste.

Performances are solid across the board too, with Kongsli in particular delivering a sensitive but maddening portrayal of a woman thrown over the edge.

She is at pains to sell herself as the victim from the word go, but a conversation with a secondary character reveals just how neurotic she actually is. Along with Tomas apparently none-too-stellar behaviour in the past, Östlund creates a solid foundation for a drama to sink our teeth into.

Unfortunately, what the film boasts in ambition it lacks in execution. It all sounds great on paper but what we ultimately end up seeing on screen is the ghost of what Turist could have been.

The introduction of a younger couple into the family’s mess – fellow tourists Fanni (Fanni Metelius) and Mats (Kristofer Hivju of Game of Thrones fame) – only serves to artificially hammer home the themes… drowning in chatter what could legitimately have made for tense and hard-hitting drama.

There’s something to be said for a comparatively small film that takes on so many themes under its wing.

The awkwardness of it all is at least memorable, and – at a stretch – appropriate for a film that is underpinned by awkwardness in every way imaginable. But the drama is too deflated, and attempts at dark social humour end up being lost in the mix.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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