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Fantastic Fest capsule review: Force Majeure

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Speaking in very broad terms (one respects the fact that one can empathize with those not like him or herself), there are three types of laughs that one might hear at the often amazing Swedish movie “Force Majeure.” The biggest guffaws probably come from single people. The slightly lesser but still sturdy laughs come from married people without kids. The most nervous chuckles, probably accompanied by a layer of flop sweat, come from parents with kids. Hoo boy.

Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are taking their kids on a skiing vacation in the French ALps. Tomas has been working a great deal and it sounds, from what Ebba tells someone as they are checking in, that some family time is overdue.

Things are going fine for a day. Then, at lunch on the rooftop cafe, it suddenly look very much like a natural disaster is about to take place, the force majeure of the title.

Panic runs through the assembled diners; Tomas has one reaction, Ebba another. You can practically hear the audience’s stomachs flipping as everyone realizes what just happened, then nervous laughter, thanks to impeccable comic timing on screen.

Suddenly how the couple feels about, well, everything — from family to security to guilt - is thrown into sharp relief. Kuhnke and Kongsli are deeply believable as a middle-aged couple who know each other just a bit too well; Ebba can forgive a lot, but she might not be able to forgive this. It’s also incredibly smart on the absurdity of received masculinity; Tomas has screwed up big time and only looks more and more absurd (and haunted) the more he refuses to own up to it.

Writer/director director Ruben Östlund delivers utterly on an ingeniously simple premise, one that is all the more agonizing and hilarious for its elegance. When an old pal of Tomas’ shows up (Kristofer Hivju, a.k.a. Tormund Giantsbane, the ginger head of the wildlings on “Game of Thrones”) with a 20-year old girlfriend, it is impossible to tell if this will ease the tension or exacerbate it. Like life, it turns out to be both. Meanwhile, the poor kids are convinced their parents are splitting up, which, as anyone with small children knows, is often how vacations work.

Unfortunately, Hitflix film writer Drew McWeeny tainted the critical waters at the first screening by comparing the film to “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in his introduction; the image was hard to erase but he wasn’t wrong. This is Ingmar Bergman as directed by Larry David and, in spite of an ending that is either a huge sellout or canny enough to be self-parody (one hopes for the latter), it’s an absolute highlight of this year’s festival.