Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Unbearable whiteness in Force Majeure.

«««« Force Majeure. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. In English and Swedish. At selected theaters.

'Tis the season for family vacations, which at their worst make business travel feel good. The obligation to have fun—the staring at kids at tables staring at screens—the hours of extra time with people you spend your life with anyway—these are the wages of the labor of making "quality time". Not for nothing do many adults feel they need a vacation after returning from a family getaway.
          All this is usually the stuff of comedy, but Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund takes it to a very different place in his superb Force Majeure (original title: Turist—a word that needs no translation from the Swedish). At a posh ski resort in the French Alps, father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and the kids (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) hit the slopes for some determined memory-making—but something is off. The dynamic in the family feels stitled, brittle, and not just because of its Nordic reserve.
          The problem is brought to a head when, from a restaurant balcony, they witness an avalanche crash down the mountain, almost reaching the hotel. Alas, "almost" is too close for Tomas, who grabs his iPhone and runs away, making no effort to save his wife or kids. When the snow stops swirling, he returns to finish his lunch. But Ebba and the kids definitely noticed his quick exit.
          All this happens very early in Östlund's film, leaving much time for the impact of this abandonment to sink in. Tomas denies it at first, attempting some pettifoggery about respecting "different points of view" on what happened. But Ebba is hard in her way, and doesn't let him wriggle off the hook.
          Östlund is a deliberate storyteller, and a sly one. He's at his best in those awkward moments before anything is said, but everything is already told. By any conventional standard his scenes go on too long, until they seem to cut deeper than they ever promised at the start. He wrings a searing performance from Kuhnke, as a man stripped not only of his values but his manhood. Kongsli gives a likewise brilliant, paradoxical turn as a compassionate wife and mother who is also forced into the role of relentless Fury.
          Östlund is an exponent of precise creation of visual environments in post-production. Here, his visual rigor extends to very décor of the resort, which affects that bland kind of euro-modernism that promises nothing and nourishes less. Like Kubrick's creepy Overlook Hotel in The Shining, its spirit is personified by the help—in this case an impassive custodian who smokes and stares and, it seems, passes judgment.
          Like the avalanche, the unraveling of this family is easy to see coming—until it goes to an almost overwhelming extreme, and you want to grab your phone and run away. But nobody left the theater the day I saw it.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

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