The Swedish family in Force Majeure witnesses a controlled avalanche.
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Force Majeure's manipulative morality feels like a passé dinner-party game

The more outlandish the film becomes, the looser its grip.

Force Majeure (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

The popular 1980s game Scruples prompted dinner-party discussion and in many cases argument by proposing ethical conundrums (“You’ve sold your house. Before you move out, the roof starts to leak. Do you have it fixed?”). There is a whole species of movie modelled calculatedly in the same spirit. Would you hire out your spouse for $1m? (Indecent Proposal.) Is there a limit to the orders you would take from authority? (Compliance.) Should one behave at all times like a complete shit? (The entire output of Neil LaBute.)

Ruben Östlund announced himself a practitioner of talking-point cinema with his last film, Play, which investigated preconceptions about race using a factually based story of white middle-class children bullied ingeniously by their black peers. Gender is the hot potato in Force Majeure. It begins on the slopes at a ski resort where a Swedish family – Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two paler-than-snow children – are having their picture taken by an unseen snapper. Each new instruction (lean your heads together, smile) puts the subjects under increasing scrutiny until they seem actually to be squirming. This doesn’t abate for the remainder of the film. Near the end, they will still be together, but their bodies will be piled in a wriggling heap, as though they have all thrown themselves at once on the same grenade.

Eating lunch on a terrace, the family is among those admiring the spectacle of a controlled avalanche. But when it looks for a moment as though the tumbling snow will engulf the diners, Tomas flees. This could perhaps be excused as a momentary malfunction, fight or flight, had he not also had the presence of mind to grab his phone first. Back at the hotel, he denies the accusations – but Ebba knows what she saw. They settle on a compromise. Regardless of their differing interpretations, they agree that an avalanche was “experienced” by both of them. The wording suggests a press release or a political rapprochement. But the real avalanche is just beginning.

Casting is a nice part of the joke here. It was somehow no surprise in Seinfeld when Jason Alexander, as George Costanza, trampled over children and the infirm to escape what he believed wrongly to be a fire; that’s what a coward looks like. But Kuhnke resembles the sort of sun-kissed hunk who could halt an avalanche with one hand and consider it only a minor part of his workout regime. Our expectations have further to fall.

Östlund and his cinematographer, Fredrik Wenzel, leave no doubt that things were remiss long before Tomas chose phone over family. The compositions around the ski resort are just off balance enough to be destabilising. Are we looking at dangerous, churning factory parts that could take someone’s arm off? No, it’s a row of juddering cable cars shot from an unusual vantage point. Ski-lift passengers are shown in close-up so that their faces float without context in a white void. The bigger picture is always being concealed. This extends to what we can hear. The resort is both noisy and deserted. Thumping music and delighted cheers always emanate from somewhere else. The family is at once aware of other people’s enjoyment and excluded from it.

Even when we can be sure what we are seeing, shots are held past the point of politeness, until it seems that the camera is casting aspersions on the image. All of this gives the impression that our reactions are being steered by a superior power, the force majeure of the title, be it morality, family or simply the manipulative hand of a film director.

If anything undermines this knowing comedy of manners, it is the sense that it prides itself on being a knowing comedy of manners. Plausibility in the film depends on both the misdemeanour and its fallout appearing logical. But the disintegration of Tomas and Ebba’s relationship is contrived – exacerbated by details minor (a sinister hotel janitor) and major (the discontentment spreading like a virus to their friends) – and this militates against effectiveness. The more outlandish the film becomes, the looser its grip. Brazen manipulation in action cinema can be an ecstatic thing: there would be no Hitchcock or Spielberg without it. In the realm of drama, though, it helps not to feel we are being prodded towards debate, like players in a passé dinner-party game.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Leader: Mark Carney — a rock star banker feels the heat

Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith.

On 24 June, the day after the EU referendum, the United Kingdom resembled a leaderless state. David Cameron promptly resigned as prime minister after his humiliating defeat. His closest ally, George Osborne, retreated to the safety and silence of the Treasury. Labour descended into open warfare; meanwhile, the leaders of the Leave campaign appeared terrified by the challenge confronting them and were already plotting and scheming against one another.

The government had not planned for Brexit, and so one of the few remaining sources of authority was the independent Bank of England. Its Canadian governor, the former Goldman Sachs banker Mark Carney, provided calm by announcing that Threadneedle Street had performed “extensive contingency planning” and would not “hesitate to take additional measures”. A month later, the Bank cut interest rates to a ­record low of 0.25 per cent and announced an additional £60bn of quantitative easing (QE). Both measures helped to avert the threat of an immediate recession by stimulating growth and employment.

Since then the Bank of England governor, who this week gave evidence on monetary policy to the economic affairs committee at the House of Lords, has become a favoured target of Brexiteers and former politicians. Michael Gove has compared Mr Carney to a vainglorious Chinese emperor and chided him for his lack of “humility”. William Hague has accused the Bank of having “lost the plot” and has questioned its future independence. Nigel Lawson has called for Mr Carney to resign, declaring that he has “behaved disgracefully”.

At no point since the Bank achieved independence under the New Labour government in 1997 has it attracted such opprobrium. For politicians faced with the risk, and the reality, of economic instability, Mr Carney and his colleagues are an easy target. However, they are the wrong one.

The consequences of loose monetary policy are not wholly benign. Ultra-low rates and QE have widened inequality by enriching asset-holders, while punishing savers. Yet the economy’s sustained weakness as well as poor productivity have necessitated such action. As Mr Osborne consistently recognised when he was chancellor, monetary activism was the inevitable corollary of fiscal conservatism. Without the Bank’s interventionism, government austerity would have had even harsher consequences.

The new Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has rightly taken the opportunity to “reset” fiscal policy. He has abandoned Mr Osborne’s absurd target of seeking to achieve a budget surplus by 2020 and has promised new infrastructure investment in his Autumn Statement on 23 November.

After years of over-reliance on monetary stimulus, a rebalancing is, in our view, necessary. Squeezed living standards (inflation is forecast to reach 3 per cent next year, given the collapse in the value of sterling) and anaemic growth are best addressed through government action rather than a premature rise in interest rates. Though UK gilt yields have risen in recent weeks, borrowing costs remain at near-record lows. Mr Hammond should not hesitate to borrow to invest, as Keynesians have long argued.

The Bank of England is far from infallible, of course. In recent years, its growth and employment forecasts have proved overly pessimistic. Mr Carney’s immediate predecessor, Mervyn King, was too slow to cut rates at the start of the financial crisis and was ill-prepared for the recession that followed. Central bankers across the developed world, most notably the former Federal Reserve head Alan Greenspan, have too often been treated as seers beyond criticism. Their reputations have suffered as a consequence.

Yet the principle of central bank independence remains one worthy of defence. Labour’s 1997 decision ended the manipulation of interest rates by opportunistic politicians and enhanced economic stability. Although the Bank’s mandate is determined by ministers, it must be free to set monetary policy without fear of interference. The challenge of delivering Brexit is the greatest any British government has faced since 1945. Rather than mutual buck-passing, politicians and central bankers must collaborate in good faith on this epic task.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage