Television comedians Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Farrell have remade the Swedish art film Force Majeure as Downhill. It twists Ruben Östlund’s 2014 existential domestic drama into a horror-comedy about an already broken marriage that falls apart during a family vacation in the Swiss Alps. The couple’s fraught tensions illustrate problems in the no-hope marital institution. Look closely and there’s the deep spiritual collapse of American relations.
But if you are accustomed to callow TV sitcoms, the irresolvable discord in Downhill might seem smart, funny, and hip. (I observed a curly-haired Millennial dude laughing at the shenanigans from beginning to end.) The film’s hipness reduces Östlund’s tragedy to a psychological Punch & Judy show: Farrell’s Pete is a dissatisfied, cowardly husband and father of two sons, while Louis-Dreyfus’s Billie is a smart, strong-willed, protective, underserved mother and wife. Toxic masculinity vs. female superiority.
Downhill epitomizes how television has usurped cinema’s influence — particularly the mainstreaming of social attitudes and emotional perspectives. Östlund’s film was distinguished by cinematic methods; meaning came from crafty visual presentation. In Force Majeure’s signature scene of an avalanche approaching the inhabitants of a ski lodge, Östlund used space and momentum to create cosmic apprehension and suspense. That terror lingered throughout the movie. But Downhill’s TV-trained American directors, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, present the avalanche as merely the setup to the film’s running joke. They have no visual skill other than sitcom closeups and medium shots. They settle on a give-and-take emotional battle that goes back to TV’s All in the Family (as well as the 1940s radio show The Bickersons), but with contemporary sarcasm.
This film’s smarter-than-thou revelations of human foible, personal pretense, and selfishness suggest sketch comedy: Pete abandons his family when he sees the approaching avalanche, which incriminates him to Billie, who becomes increasingly hostile and distant. But this slickness lacks depth, even though Louis-Dreyfus and Farrell play it straight. She’s still Seinfeld’s Elaine Benes, archetypal urbane harridan, and he’s his usual beady-eyed wreck of a man. Her best scene, when Billie is alone and seduced by a young Italian ski bum (Giulio Berruti), recalls Juliette Binoche’s middle-aged sexual anxiety but is cheapened by Billie’s resorting to #MeToo bravado — a self-congratulatory sitcom reflex.
TV formula is only part of Downhill’s problem; its source material was shallow in different ways. Östlund took an Ingmar Bergman subject and gave it Stanley Kubrick cynicism — marriage seen without cultural or spiritual roots but as an art-movie experiment. Originally titled “Turist” to convey existential panic, Force Majeure also indicated inescapable fate. Downhill gets close to that only when Pete drunkenly confesses his marriage’s failure (“Science made us parents”). This sloppy, pathetic disclosure is a long way from Force Majeure or the frankness of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut; it also betrays the humanist legacy of the American film to which Kubrick paid homage: Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love, a classic ’70s comedy that explored shifting sex mores with admirable affection.
Downhill takes TV’s easy way out by shifting to trendy male-bashing, as in Billie’s demand to Pete: “If you don’t like the way I see you, then show me something different.” This appeasement to one-sided political correctness is how TV culture operates; it’s not emotionally exploratory cinema as with Kubrick, Mazursky, or those unnerving Alps sequences contrasting nature to personality in Ken Russell’s powerful film of D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.
Faxon, Rash, Louis-Dreyfus, and Farrell show little imagination or originality. (Louis-Dreyfus is also the film’s producer, so Billie gets the final cruel quip.) Their inadequate approach to sexual relations hides the greater tensions now stressing our culture. That’s the tragedy of cinema’s being trivialized by TV-makers. This is not the golden age of television but the tarnished age of movies.