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Force Majeure—Movie Review

If there were ever a film to benefit from its audience knowing little about it ahead of time, it would be Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. All I knew was that it had won a major award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; now I know why. Writer-director Östlund introduces us to a seemingly-perfect Swedish family at the outset of a week-long vacation at a French ski resort, and then proceeds to dismantle this picture-postcard experience, day by day. Let others expand upon the premise and provide you with spoilers; that’s all you’re going to learn from me.

What I can say is that the filmmaker establishes and maintains an incredible sense of unease. The suspense is all the more effective because so much of the story plays out in silence, against the pristine backdrop of a luxury hotel in the beautiful French Alps. After a while, we start to wonder if every person who steps into frame, or every mundane object we see, is intended to present a threat. Alfred Hitchcock famously found menace in the ordinary; Östlund exploits that idea with cunning.

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Photo Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

The performances are spot-on. Johannes Bah Kuhnke plays the handsome, successful businessman and Lisa Loven Kongsli his beautiful wife, whose relationship is shaken by a brief but telling event at the resort. After that moment, nothing can be the same. The actors skillfully reflect the subtle, often unspoken emotional undercurrent that puts their relationship at risk. (It helps that the actors were unfamiliar to me, as they will be to most Americans; they bring no baggage or familiarity from other parts they’ve played.)

Many people are describing Force Majeure as a black comedy, and while I don’t completely disagree, I think the label is misleading. This is a fundamentally serious film laced with a sharp edge of social satire. Östlund makes fun of bourgeois success and complacency, as well as the conventional roles that women and especially men are expected to fulfill in our society. (The couple’s two kids escape relatively unscathed.) He manages to skewer his targets without bludgeoning them to death.

But perhaps his greatest achievement is crafting a film that is utterly unpredictable. We never know what’s going to happen next. Will it be something terrible, something risible, or something that is merely absurd? Force Majeure is a masterful piece of work, one of the best films I’ve seen all year.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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