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Review: The Swedish 'Force Majeure' finds a dad ruining vacation

Force Majeure

This happy Swedish family on an Alps skiing trip in "Force Majeure" won't stay hapMagnolia Pictures

‘Force Majeure’
Director:
Ruben Ostlund
Stars: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

It’s impossible to watch the faintly funny Swedish drama “Force Majeure” without thinking of “The Loneliest Planet.” But they’re very different films. They both turn on the same type of moment —one where a character, in a moment of mindless instinct, acting cowardly, revealing his true, pathetic self. The damning incident happened halfway through “The Loneliest Planet.” “Force Majeure” frontloads it. A young family are on a nice Alps skiing trip. One afternoon they’re feasting deckside when what looks like an avalanche heads towards them. In a panic, the father (Johannes Kuhnke) runs, not even looking back as mom (Lisa Loven Kongsli) cradles her children, bracing for the worst. It was a false alarm —just a customary planned mini-avalanche that got slightly but not fatally out of hand. Dad returns, trying to laugh it off —as though he didn’t just leave them to potential death.

In “The Loneliest Planet,” no one discussed the similar incident, but they didn’t need to: You could read everything on their faces and in their body language. The characters in “Force Majeure” do almost nothing but talk about it, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s all about exploring the fallout of such a happening. At first mom tries to brush it off, but it’s clear she can’t. Soon she’s bringing it up during a meal with his longtime friend (Kristofer Hivju) and his new 20-something girlfriend, who desperately, badly tries to intellectualize his sudden decision. He, meanwhile, steadfastly and unconvincingly denies that he didn’t run off at all. She stays rational and cold, too shocked to have seen a different, horrifically selfish side of the man with whom she’s procreated.

This isn’t a message film, though. At times it recalls the working class fables of Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes (soon of the Marion Cotillard-starring “Two Days, One Night”), digging into an ethics debate without any need to solve it. Writer-director Ruben Ostlund is of the minimalist long-take school, and his ever-still camera stares at Kuhnke’s deflating patriarch and Kongsli’s shocked, increasingly disillusioned mom as they attempt to communicate, even if it’s just her struggling to find ways to get the truth from the man she assumed she’d be with forever. (Both actors are superb, though Kuhnke is operating in a slightly more comedic register than Kongsli, whose facial expressions register the minutest of emotions.)

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Despite the heaviness, there’s something detached and funny about the film, even (or especially) during the inciting incident. Slow cinema can also become deadpan cinema, as witness filmmakers ranging from Bela Tarr to Aki Kurismaki. Ostlund lets scenes play out unhurriedly and with a bare minimum of cuts or camera movement, and it gives it a heightened feel perched somewhere between intensity and amusement. (There's even a decent running gag, in which a hotel employee keeps awkwardly popping up when characters need privacy the most.)And it keeps finding new avenues to explore, right down to the curious ending —the kind of finale you debate, possibly to suss out if what it’s saying is egalitarian, possibly sexist or something else entirely.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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