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Film Review: Questions About Manhood Snowball In 'Force Majeure'

Magnolia Pictures

A potentially devastating mishap on a family vacation in the French Alps chills a marriage in Swedish filmmaker Ruben D. Ostlund's gripping and beautiful Force Majeure. The event — an ultimately benign avalanche at a ski resort — stops short of being catastrophic. But a fight-or-flight response by the husband and father buries the family in something less tangible than snow.

Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) have brought their two school-age kids to an expensive resort slapped onto the side of a mountain for what they intend to be a memorable bonding experience. On the second day, the family is lunching al fresco when a rumbling torrent of snow begins cascading down the mountain's face. Tomas says it looks like a "controlled" avalanche, a man-made one meant to deter the real thing. But as it gathers momentum and the diners become fogged in by "avalanche smoke," the last thing we can see is Tomas running away, leaving his wife and kids in the mist, his daughter crying, "Papa!"

Naturally, the family is relieved when nobody's hurt; it was indeed a controlled avalanche, and the other vacationers seem to get right back up on their skis. But something gnaws at Ebba and over dinner that night with another couple, she punctuates the end of the story by saying to him, "You ran away from the table." She's  directly challenging how he played out his role (or the expectations thereof) as father and husband, and all he can muster is, "That's not how I remember it."

As the week winds down, Ebba won't let it go and Tomas's flimsy wall of denial and self-preservation begins to crumble. She tells the story to another couple who, when they're alone later in the evening, begin constructing their own narratives about what they might have done in the same situation. Meanwhile, the friction between Tomas and Ebba informs all subsequent interactions and now seems to infect their kids' sense of safety.

For good reason, Force Majeure won the Un Certain Regard jury prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is Sweden's submission for the 2015 Foreign Language Film Oscar.  It's gorgeous to look at: all those vulnerable, fallible people posed against massive peaks and heaps of untouched snow. And Ostlund's screenplay has all the internal cogs and gears of a taut psychological thriller about how perceptions of partners and parents can change in an instant. As Tomas, Johannes Kuhnke (who looks remarkably like the American actor Stephen Dorff) is full of contradictions as he ponders how he fled his family that day, shaking up what it means to be an honorable man.

Force Majeure | Dir. Ruben D. Ostlund | 118 minutes, in Swedish and English | Tivoli Theatre, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City Mo., 914-383-7756.

Up To Date
Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.