Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 21, 2014 11:03 am 
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The cost of denial

When what seems to be an avalanche roars up on ski vacationers at an open air French alpine cafe, instead of protecting his family the Swedish husband and father Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) grabs his cell phone and runs. So says his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) anyway. Tomas denies it, and the feeling that grows up between Tomas and Ebba so disturbs their children, young Vera (Clara Wettergren) and little Harry (Vincent Wettergren), that they cower and shudder for days. Tomas must face Ebba's accusations with a flirting couple speaking English at a restaurant (Malin Dahl and Brady Corbet), and later at greater length in Swedish with an old friend of Tomas' (Kristofer Hivju) and a 20-year-old woman (Fanni Metelius) whom the friend is having an affair with away from his wife and kids. The friend puts forth a feeble defense that Tomas was protecting himself first, thereafter to protect his dependents, as one is advised on a plane to put on one's own oxygen mask first, before assisting nearby children. It won't wash. Nor is there comfort in the news that the event that terrified everyone present was only the "fog" of a controlled avalanche, and not a real one. The other couple stays up debating the issues for hours by themselves that night while Tomas and Ebba and their kids try uneasily to sleep.

Ruben Östlund, whose eye is ice cold and specific and whose humor is cruel and dry, likes stuff that makes you uneasy. And he likes to play with themes of masculinity, judging by his last film Play (NYFF 2011), which was about more macho black boys menacing easily intimidated white ones in a Swedish town. And he likes to draw out the torture a bit. That is what happens also (with occasional touches of wry humor) in Force Majeure, which makes its unfortunate Swedish family's ski vacation into six days of nightmare despite the perfect fluffy snow. Tomas goes from denial (perhaps a natural male gesture) to cold sweat. He gets locked out of their holiday apartment for hours after a day of skiing apart. At last on a penultimate evening he collapses when talking to Ebba and is wracked with a prologued fit of hysterical sobs even in front of the kids.

What happens on the last day is an ironic resolution indeed. And then at the end the nutty, endangering bus driver: what does that mean? It begins to feel as though Östlund has manufactured too many incidents. But he's very good at manufacturing them. And, an ardent skier who's made ski films, he shows the European ski vacationers and all their fancy its trappings so beautifully depicted from an ironic periphery by Ursula Meier in Sister/L'enfant d'en haut (2012) .

Can a man's masculinity be fatally tarnished in a single moment's flinch? That's what Force Majeure asks, and so does Julia Loktev's effectively more stark and simple The Loneliest Planet, where a young couple on the rocky plains of Central Asia with a rough guide (Gaël García Bernal and Hani Furstenberg) have such a moment when a stranger arrives pointing a rifle. That film, also in the New York Film Festival of three years ago, has met with controversy, but has its passionate advocates. Force Majeure has received a more unanimous chorus of raves. This may be because Östlund's film has more conventional polish. Loktev's film cuts deeper though, not only because it's so memorably simple but because (as Mike D'Angelo noted), an incident like this works even better if the couple can't even talk about it. Tomas and Ebba talk till the elephant's disappeared from the room.

Both films beg comparison with Hemingway's famous story, "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber," about a couple on safari in Africa. The story suggests that a man who has showed cowardice can still redeem himself, however ironic and temporary that redemption may be. Östlund's work, though successfully squirm-inducing, feels more labored than Loktev and Hemingway.

Force Majeure, 113 mins., debuted at Cannes in Un Certain Regard, winning the Jury Prize, and has been included in over two dozen international film festivals, including Toronto. It's Sweden's entry in this year's Best Foreign Oscar competition. Watched for this review at Magno 2 Screening Room, NYC 15 October 2014. US theatrical release by Magnolia 24 October 2014 (NYC), and 7 November at Sundance Kabuki, San Francisco. French and Uk releases in January and April 2015.

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