Here is a trailer for Force Majeure, a 2014 Swedish film that was much admired by cineastes.
And here is a trailer for Downhill, whose American makers describe it as a “riff” on the Swedish movie.
The films have much in common, but their fates have been very different.
Force Majeure and Downhill have the same basic plot: A seemingly happy family goes on a skiing vacation in the Alps. While eating lunch on an outdoor deck, they see an avalanche (a controlled avalanche*) heading their way, and the father leaves the scene, apparently to protect himself but not his wife and children, shocking his wife. Later the wife tells the story of the avalanche scene in a gathering with friends. The husband counters with his own view of the event. The parents distance themselves from each other.
From there, the Swedish and American stories diverge.
The Swedish film was written and directed by Ruben Östlund, whose careful, sensitive observations of family dynamics owe much to the late Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. The film also is described as dark comedy, but the humor comes off as pretty darned dry to an American viewer.
The American version is much more direct and amounts to a war between the sexes. The wife is not just disappointed but enraged by her husband’s behavior, and loudly so. When she talks, other women agree with her. When he speaks, other men agree with him. Mother gathers the children and unites with them against the father.
A scene that raises questions toward the end of the Swedish version is rendered explicitly in the American one, maybe because American audiences are presumed to be too literal-minded to deal with subtlety. The final scene in Force Majeure suggests that the mother may not be perfect herself, but that scene is not part of the Downhill ending, which, per current American themes, ends in a straightforward win for the wife.
In further tailoring for American tastes, Downhill is much more vulgar, with dialog sprinkled with the now typical “fucks” and “shits,” and with more explicit discussions of sex organs and sexual activities. Two friends-of-the-family characters have been cast as shallow clods, presumably to provide some humorous foils to the more serious dueling parents.
Downhill opened on 2,300 U.S. screens on February 14. It was not expected to be a crowd favorite like Sonic the Hedgehog, which opened the same day, but it stars well-known comedy actors Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell as the parents, Billie and Pete Staunton. Its writers and director are also well-regarded.
Downhill was expected to sell $4 million in tickets on its opening weekend, but revenues were a much lower $2.6 million after early reviews came in negative. By last weekend, more than 70 percent of the theater screens had dropped the movie. Yesterday, the 17th day after its release, each of those screens attracted an average $47 in sales, or about three viewers over the course of several showings.
In short, the film has bombed.
Theories on What Happened
1) Downhill may have been an unloved orphan in a new home. Its production was well underway when Disney acquired it in its purchase of 21st Century Fox, which was completed in March 2019.
The very short length of the movie, 86 minutes, further suggests that several scenes may have been cut from the original script, perhaps not by the original writers and directors. In addition, its release date, during the slow months of the movie year, seem to indicate there was little enthusiasm about its prospects.
2) Promoters may have pitched the film to the wrong market with advertisements suggesting it was a comedy or at least a straight story with lots of yuks around the edges. These may not have been the kind of moviegoers who would enjoy a story about the disintegration of a married couple’s trust in one another. In fact, the people who saw Downhill in theaters gave it an average rating of “D.”
3) Filmmakers could have concluded, wrongly, that Force Majeure was as popular with broad audiences as it was among their group. In fact, that film’s U.S. revenues were less than $1.5 million, and its worldwide sales totaled just over $4.1 million.
* Controlled Avalanche
The Force Majeure movie may have assumed that its largely Scandinavian audience would have understood that ski resorts reduce the likelihood of actual avalanches by breaking up dangerous concentrations of snow with controlled avalanches.
One clever scene in Downhill uses an actor from the earlier movie to play a resort official who explains to Billie and Pete that the controlled avalanche that scared them had been planned ahead and that many warnings had been posted in advance.