(Release Info London schedule; February 28th, 2020, Electric Cinema White City, Television Centre, 101 Wood Ln, White City, London W12 7FR, United Kingdom, 15:00 · 18:00 · 20:45)
Barely escaping an avalanche during a family ski vacation in 'The Alps', a married couple is thrown into disarray as they're forced to reevaluate their lives and how they feel about each other.
It’s the ski vacation of a lifetime for Pete (Will Ferrell) and Billie Stanton (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and their two boys Finn (Julian Grey) and Emerson (Ammon Jacob Ford); a week in 'The Austrian Alps'. With both parents unplugged from their professional careers, 'The Stantons' are, on the surface, ready for seven days of snowy family fun. What's poised to be a delightful week of skiing and togetherness instead becomes a series of awkward and emotionally fraught moments in which Pete and Billie have to be honest with themselves and each other in ways they hadn’t expected. Early in the trip, while having lunch at a mountainside restaurant, Pete and Billie have dramatically different responses to what's, unbeknownst to them, a controlled avalanche that appears frighteningly out of control. Pete’s reaction stuns the family and throws the rest of their vacation and the couple’s marriage into chaos, as Billie reevaluates their relationship and each is forced to wrestle with their own sense of self.
How well can two people really know each other? And what happens when one of them does something totally unexpected? As a long-married couple, Billie and Pete know each other inside and out, or so they thought before their trip to 'The Alps'. When disaster strikes, Pete reacts in a way Billie couldn’t have predicted or imagined. These characters, including the children, are digesting the reality of what just happened. As terrifying as the avalanche is, what Pete does is just as terrifying, if not even more so. And it happens so quickly and it’s such a disaster that it’s hard for Billie to actually fully understand what happened. She’s in shock. Pete is also in denial. Unable to accept or understand what he’s done, he tries hard to carry on with the family vacation they’d all hoped for. Pete is pathetic in his own way. When you watch the movie, you’re also kind of sympathetic to him at the same time. He makes the most egregious error he could make, and he’s so sorry, but he’s just too childish to admit it. Otherwise, it could be easy to write off Pete’s actions, abandoning his family in a moment of danger, as wholly unredeemable. Billie is a self-assured, accomplished attorney and devoted wife and mother who suddenly finds herself on unstable emotional ground. There are countless times where the film is able to tell the story just because of her reactions. It's Pete’s regrettable response and resulting shame that make the story so relatable. There are no good guys or bad guys in this movie. Maybe there are good people making bad decisions, but even then, they’re questionable decisions. Billie ultimately feels a great deal of sympathy for her husband because she understands the shame he feels for what he has done.
Providing a foible to both the established relationship and emotional tension between Billie and Pete are Zach (Zach Woods) and Rosie (Zoë Chao), a carefree young couple enjoying a free-wheeling exploration of Europe that they document online with the hashtag 'NoAgenda'. The couple ends up in a pivotal role in Billie and Pete’s understanding of the avalanche and it's aftermath. They’re a couple in the euphoric phase of falling in love, where your brain is just marinating in all those love hormones. You’re just so excited and sort of disinclined to pay attention to the limitations in yourself or the other person. Zach works with Pete in real estate, though it’s debatable how close their friendship is. Pete has been following Zach and Rosie’s European adventures online, perhaps with a bit of jealousy and envy, and, unbeknownst to Billie, invites the couple to drop by their hotel for dinner. Pete kind of reels them into their predicament to give him cover. He’s using Zach and Rosie as a smokescreen or a way of blocking the conversation from Billie about what happened during the avalanche. The two couples spend an incredibly squirm-worthy evening together, as Zach and Rosie bear witness to the unbearable tension between Billie and Pete.
Having Rosie and Zach observe Billie and Pete’s meltdown is a great device; we can feel the cringing and the awkwardness. It also gives a small nod that these two people, in their own way, are also headed toward an avalanche if they’re not careful, and we get clues about what Rosie wants and what Zach wants as they've private time with Billie and Pete respectively. So, it's important to show, again, the theme of the individual within the whole. Zach also has private conversations with Pete, as Rosie does with Billie, where the younger couple provides perspective for the agonized husband and wife. Pete and Zach have the relationship that so many men have, where you go out expecting to have the time of your life and by the end of the night, you’re crying into your 'Jägermeister'. Zach is a critical component to Pete’s journey. Rosie and Billie have a poignant exchange when the two women unexpectedly cross paths the day after their stressful dinner. She’s almost a stranger to Billie but when they unexpectedly meet on the same ski lift, Rosie says, 'hey, what your husband did was messed up and you've every right to be angry'. Rosie is an outsider looking in at a situation and offering an honest, objective observation.
Two other characters that help Billie gain perspective are Charlotte (Miranda Otto), a mysterious and outspoken woman who may or may not work at the hotel where the couple is staying, and Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti), a handsome and passionate ski instructor with whom Billie spends an afternoon on the slopes. Charlotte is the story’s most enigmatic and outrageous character. She's among the first people Pete and Billie meet when they arrive in Austria, and within seconds, she’s sharing tales of her sexual exploits. She feels she’s there to liven up the party and make people loosen up. She’s super confident about herself and doesn’t care about anyone else’s opinions at all. She has a very black and white kind of stance on things. It’s just totally different than an American point of view. She’s definitely a character that has a toe on the ground but is a little larger-than-life and lives her life differently from every other character that we meet in the story. Guglielmo is a guy that's very passionate about what he’s doing. He doesn’t think too much. He just feels a lot. His passion contrasts with Pete’s avoidance, as he helps Billie understand that sometimes we might need to feel rather than think. Billie's interaction with Guglielmo is a spontaneous, surprising relief and a tempting distraction from the anxiety and tension she is experiencing with her husband and her family. You've these characters that flow into the story of Pete and Billie in the right time in this moment in their lives where they’re figuring out if they can go down the hill together. Charlotte and Guglielmo are characters who, especially for Billie, come in at the right time with a message for her. Finn and Emerson are Billie and Pete’s twin sons. The characters have different feelings about skiing. As with Billie and Pete, the avalanche changes the vibe of the boys’ vacation. Finn and Emerson experience the close call alongside their parents and are deeply shaken by Pete’s reaction. They’re not just frightened, but confused as to why he would do that. And in fact, their father becomes a child to them.
The version of the film uses the avalanche as a metaphor for the marriage. Billie and Pete can’t move on because they see the things that are happening differently. The question is, can they sync up in their stories? They mimic life’s unpredictable nature where daily stress or even tragic circumstances can often be accompanied by comedic moments and/or relief. Billie and Pete are thrown off balance in a culture they don’t understand, frustrated by a language they don’t speak, and confused by customs and laws they’re not familiar with. They’re just these tiny, confused human beings. And then a massive, out-of-control avalanche rolls over them. The story shows us that it’s in moments of unexpected stress and imbalance that characters find their true selves and reveal the fissures in their relationships. We've both the woman’s perspective as well as the man’s and examine how this random, yet incredibly significant, incident affects them both as individuals and as a couple. Inevitably, the characters are forced to reevaluate everything they thought to be true. And as a result, the audience is left at the end of the film debating whose side they're on.
From the start of "Downhill", there’s a sense of foreboding, even before 'The Stantons' come face to face with an avalanche. That feeling of uncertainty comes from a combination of camerawork, the sight of avalanche-blast cannons on the mountainside and the film’s doom-heralding score. The challenge is to combine humor, melancholy and a distinct regional feel in the music without muddling the composition. Such difficulties can be inspirational because you’re doing something you wouldn’t do instinctively. Sonic warnings also come from avalanche cannons scattered throughout the peaks. Though they appear ominous, they’re designed to blast away accumulated snow, creating intentional slides on empty slopes to diminish the risk of spontaneous avalanches on active ski runs. Anytime you see an actual avalanche on the mountain, that whole mountain range is changed and replaced from the one that's there. It adds a whole other layer of, oh gosh, this scenario that kicks off the emotional journey for this family is actually something that's happening 30 miles down the road. All of those elements adds poignancy that you couldn’t help but feel. For example, Charlotte dresses almost entirely in white, from her fur-trimmed ski suit to her glamorous casual wear. The color plays into other character's’ clothes. There’s a scene with Billie and Pete, sort of a pivotal scene in the hallway, and Billie’s wearing this white scarf. The intention there's to show this impending avalanche of feelings is sort of choking her, to put it bluntly.
Another little signature is putting the characters in a white environment even when they’re inside. We've the apartment with the sofa, chair and carpet. That's really to put Billie in the snow even though she’s actually in a physical interior. It’s this thing again of being trapped in a blind environment where you haven’t got depth perception and those kinds of things. It’s just white all around her, so even when she’s inside, she’s still in the snow. The design concept aims to keep Billie and Pete in the eye of the storm, no matter where they're. The theme is that Billie and Pete are still trying to weather this large avalanche. Multiple things happen along the way, but it really is about two people spiraling and trying to figure out how they can navigate their way back to each other. Even when Billie and Pete are safe from avalanche danger, they’re still surrounded by a cold and snowy landscape. The scenery and the landscape are so stunning that people could think that they’re fake. Beyond the starkness of white, the film leanes on a muted palette for Billie and Pete, both in their ski wear and the dark grays and blues that round out their apartment, as a way of expressing the mood of their trip. While the locals take to the slopes in bright, flashy outfits, 'The Stantons' look is a little less lively. The point is that even within the sphere of wonderful enjoyment, 'The Stanton' family seems to be this slightly neutral-toned whole, because maybe they’re not enjoying the holiday as much as everybody else is, and that’s significant for the film.
"Downhill" is a distinctly American take on an original story by Swedish director Ruben Östlund. It's inspired by the 2014 'Swedish' film "Force Majeure". It's a classic dinner party kind of question; what would you do if you're faced with this sort of event? How would you react? What appeals about the story is the idea that a person can be viewing their life through a certain lens, and what happens when that lens is taken off, what’s different? And is, in fact, anything different? How can a subtle shift in perspective, if facing an avalanche can be subtle, have such profound emotional effects. It’s a very big crisis, and it’s a big actual event that happens in the film. There’s a long-standing tradition in every art form of taking a work of art that you admire and interpreting it in a different context. It’s the film version of a cover song. You take a movie that you love, that has a very particular sensibility and showing how you can riff on it. The intention is to take the ideas that the original movie had and explore them in a new context. It's a character-driven ballet between comedy and drama.