Saturday, November 15, 2014

"Force Majeure"

 2.5 / 5 

There's an avalanche at the center of Force Majeure, but despite a few heart-stopping moments surrounding that event, the movie plays out more like a glacier: It moves so slowly it practically stops, but there's clearly something fascinating going on. It's a film possibly best appreciated by those who found Amour a little too fast-paced.  

On a winter vacation to a ski resort in the French Alps, a Swedish family -- father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children Vera and Harry -- are caught off guard when a man-made avalanche goes wildly out of control and threatens to wipe them off of the terrace restaurant where they're lunching.

While Ebba rushes to protect her children, Tomas panics, and for the next few days the strain of the incident incites unexpected outbursts and emotional breakdowns.

Force Majeure is an uncomfortable movie, intentionally so, and as the days wear on so does the emotional fall out.  Both Ebba and Tomas have seen each other in ways they never imagined, and Tomas is particularly affected.  He should have stayed and protected his family, and finally, in a honestly raw moment, he acknowledges that the person he has become is vastly different than the man he imagined himself to be.

The synopsis reads better than it plays.  Director Ruben Östlund mostly employs a static, calm style -- punctuated by a few unexpectedly hyperactive moments -- that at first feels appropriately cold and clinical but becomes exasperating.  Force Majeure is like asking one of the pod people Invasion of the Body Snatchers to talk about her feelings: Extreme emotional detachment makes for unsatisfying storytelling.

Both Kuhnke and Kongsli, along with key supporting players, do a terrific job at conveying a creeping fear, not just of the natural disaster, but of the tenuous nature of marriage and relationships.  They're scared to tell each other what they really think, but alternately frightened of the emotions themselves.

From time to time, Östlund's script seems to be getting to the heart of the matter, then backs off.   Visually,  he showcases the folly of thinking the uncontrollable can be controlled. Wide shots of the precarious setting of the ski resort and close-ups of the potentially unreliable machinery that claims to tame the mountain convey an underlying ominousness.  But none of the visuals and little of the emotion ever pays off.

Watching Force Majeure is like being on a roller coaster that's all lift-hill and no drops. The anticipation of something thrilling is always there, but after a while you wonder if it's ever going to happen ... and, in the end, it never does.

The intention may well have been to be as cold and icy as the setting itself, as frosty and impenetrable as the snow-covered mountains.  And, in fact, Force Majeure turns out to be exactly that.  Though it has moments of pitch-black humor and attempts at emotional catharsis, it never quite finds the heart that would allow it to answer its questions of integrity, responsibility and bravery.

Viewed Nov. 15, 2014 -- Sundance Sunset


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