Co-written and Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash
This week’s “Downhill” is an American remake of the 2014 Swedish film “Force Majeure,” which is currently streaming on Hulu. The premise of each film is essentially the same but an exercise in comparing and contrasting is fascinating in terms of the respective styles and the presumed tastes of European and American audiences.
In both films, a family is on vacation at a ski resort in the Alps when an avalanche during lunch comes precipitously close to the dining skiers on an exterior patio, and the husband/father desserts the group in an apparent attempt to save himself without trying to protect or save his family. Naturally, this causes the wife to reevaluate their relationship and marriage, producing the main dramatic tension of the film.
In “Force Majeure,” prior to this moment, we’ve seen extensive scenes of snow-making, piste-grooming, and the blasting of controlled avalanches. These blasts have also been commented on and have become like the background noise of the resort and so the blast that starts the lunchtime slide itself isn’t remarkable. In “Downhill,” the blast and slide come a little earlier and are therefore somewhat more of a shock, or at least less routine.
That timing is also critical for other reasons. The Swedish film makes great use of silence and the white landscapes, with those extensive sequences of slope maintenance interspersed with shots of passing lifts and cable cars. The American film includes a few of these shots, but nothing like to the extent of the earlier film – which contributes to the remake being 34 minutes shorter (at 1hr 26min vs. 2hrs). In “Force Majeure,” these scenes are like the negative space in a sparse design and they change the tone of the narrative into something bleaker and lonelier, assisted by the resort itself seeming almost empty throughout the story, compared to the crowds and lines of “Downhill.”
This tonal difference is also affected by the casting, although this might have a localized effect. I wasn’t especially familiar with the Swedish leads (Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) and I don’t know if this might have been different for a Swedish audience, but I had no great expectation of how the story might develop. In contrast, at least for an American audience, Will Ferrell and Julia Louis Dreyfuss in “Downhill” are arguably comedy royalty and so there’s always this sense that it’s teetering on the edge of something broader. There was a similar effect in another recent Scandinavian/American movie pairing, 2014’s Norwegian “In Order of Disappearance” (originally “Kraftidioten”) and 2019’s American “Cold Pursuit” – both about a snow plow driver who seeks revenge for the death of his son. The Norwegian film starred Stellan Skarsgard while the remake starred Liam Neeson – who has become known recently as the mature reluctant action hero, and so the violent turn of “Cold Pursuit” is less surprising.
Both “Force Majeure” and “Downhill” are comedic in their own ways. “Force Majeure” is full of subtlety and nuance and long, awkward silences between the leads, exacerbated by the aforementioned silences that almost make loneliness an additional character. Watching it, at least if you watch with somebody else, you laugh repeatedly as events become increasingly strained, often to cut those awkward silences. It’s a dark and brooding situational comedy, the voyeuristic comedy of somebody else’s stress and despair brought on by this unforeseeable event and behavior that are inherently both amusing and alarming at the same time. Indeed, the title itself refers to an event that might undermine an agreement in the context of contract law – something that nobody could have expected – including in a marriage.
Obviously that same basic idea holds for “Downhill,” but all of that subtlety and nuance are scrubbed away and replaced with something far more direct and literal. Despite the shorter running time, “Downhill” adds completely new subplots to fill the empty spaces and seemingly appeal to less patient viewers – including a very American sequence in which the couple pursue a complaint against the resort, including threats of legal action. And when Pete (Ferrell) confesses to his actions, it’s a brief exchange in a hallway, whereas Tomas (Kuhnke) experiences something close to a complete breakdown – in an altogether darker and more effective entry point towards redemption.
The films also differ in narrative details. In “Force Majeure,” the couple and their children are younger, and so it’s somewhat more believable that this might have been the first truly questionable moment of the marriage. And the film depicts the family as much closer, with all of them napping in the same large bed, and the parents initially skiing either side of the kids, so as to watch them at all times – which makes the later neglect seem even more out of place. In “Downhill,” the couple is older, we’re even told they’ve struggled a little at times, the kids are also older (now two teenaged boys instead of one boy and one girl, both preteen), and the first time we see them all skiing, on their first day on the mountain, the parents are skiing ahead of the kids, giving less of a sense of protective hovering. All of which makes the desertion seem more compelling in “Force Majeure.”
In both films, there’s another woman who encourages the wife to seek a little “me” time, away from her husband and children. In “Downhill,” this character is a caricature of a single, predatory hotel manager, swooping in to score with single guests. It’s behavior we normally see from male characters and it’s perhaps the most broadly comedic portrayal in the film – to the point of feeling slightly out of place. In contrast, in “Force Majeure,” this character is played entirely straight, and is actually another wife and mother who is vacationing alone, leading to a near debate about the nature of marriage and fidelity that comes across as very European and perhaps not something that would play well, or anything like as seriously, in an American multiplex.
Which leaves the two films producing quite different outcomes. Both clearly deal with the same basic idea – of how you might react if your spouse hightailed and ran, without concern for the safety of you and your children, during a moment of perceived danger. But “Downhill” feels like it’s only skimming the surface of that question, as compared to “Force Majeure.” And “Downhill” throws in a bunch of other somewhat questionable behavior to muddy that central premise, where “Force Majeure” stretches out the central premise almost to the exclusion of everything else. It’s not that I’m arguing against seeing “Downhill,” despite it being the lighter and, in my opinion, less successful version of the story. I would actually recommend seeing both of them, as close together as possible, just to be able to compare them in this way. It’s a fascinating look at original and adapted storytelling, stylistic choices, cultural differences, and pacing – and would probably make a neat basis for an exercise in film school, not to make a specific point, just to prompt what might be a deeper conversation (more like the conversation about the nature of marriage in “Force Majeure”).
Another new release is “The Photograph,” written and directed by Stella Meghie, and telling a story of romances separated by generations and time. A writer (Lakeith Stanfield) interviews a man in New Orleans who tells him about a woman he used to know who moved to New York, many years earlier, to pursue her photography. This leads him to try and find that woman, only to find that she has recently died, leaving behind her daughter (Issa Rae) who is now the assistant creator of a local museum. The story is set up to run somewhat parallel narrative arcs as we learn about both the earlier and current relationships, and there’s relatively little in either story that’s surprising. Which is entirely OK as this isn’t a film that’s trying to surprise us – it’s more about the way the story is being told and this is a beautiful film, with deft direction and extraordinarily wonderful dialog that sounds natural, and which is delivered equally naturally, giving the impression at times of watching real people having real conversations. Coming just a week after the Academy Awards, “The Photograph” is a film that reinforces the need for an industry that welcomes and recognizes all voices – an industry that could start by writing Stella Meghie a series of blank checks for whatever she wants to make next.