Fools fool­ing with na­ture

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images -

Force Ma­jeure, drama, rated R, in Swedish, French, and English with sub­ti­tles, The Screen, 3 chiles Res­i­dents of the tin­der­box-like South­west, with its drought-rid­den sum­mers and con­stant threat of for­est fires, are no strangers to that dare to Mother Na­ture, the con­trolled burn. Th­ese man- made con­fla­gra­tions, like vac­ci­na­tions with a live dis­ease cul­ture, are de­signed as a pre­emp­tive strike on na­ture to pro­tect against a full-blown nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. Most of the time they work as in­tended. But, as those whose mem­o­ries here reach back to the dev­as­tat­ing Cerro Grande fire of 2000 can at­test, “the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/gang aft agley” — to quote the fa­mous line from Robert Burns.

They prac­tice a sim­i­lar taunt­ing of Mother Na­ture in the Alps. As writer-di­rec­tor Ruben Östlund’s movie opens with breathtaking vis­tas of snow-laden moun­tains, we see and hear ex­plo­sions in the snow — flashes of light ac­com­pa­nied by omi­nous claps of per­cus­sion burst­ing from the ma­jes­tic slopes. Th­ese ex­plo­sions, we will come to find out, are det­o­nated to trig­ger con­trolled avalanches, to re­lieve the bur­den of ac­cu­mu­lated snow and min­i­mize the risk of nat­u­ral slides that might cause se­ri­ous harm.

But dan­ger is the fur­thest thing from the minds of the well- heeled va­ca­tion­ers at this lux­u­ri­ous French ski re­sort. Among them are To­mas (Jo­hannes Kuhnke), a pros­per­ous Swedish busi­ness­man, his pretty, dark-haired wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young chil­dren, Vera and Harry (played by sib­lings Clara and Vincent Wet­ter­gren), who have come to the Alps for a week’s ski va­ca­tion. As Östlund shep­herds us along with ti­tles an­nounc­ing their progress through the hol­i­day (“Ski Day One,” “Ski Day Two”), they rise each morn­ing, break­fast, and hit the slopes. They have their pic­ture taken en famille by the re­sort pho­tog­ra­pher, and then slalom down through the mag­nif­i­cent scenery. At the end of the day, they ride a mov­ing side­walk through a great, womb­like tube back into the ho­tel.

For a while, noth­ing hap­pens. There is some­thing almost omi­nously peace­ful about the rou­tine. The ski-lift rides pass in si­lence. The Swedish fam­ily is beau­ti­ful, they ski beau­ti­fully, they re­lax beau­ti­fully after hours, sip­ping cock­tails and meet­ing fel­low va­ca­tion­ers in the beau­ti­ful lodge of the re­sort.

And out­side, on the slopes of the tow­er­ing moun­tain, come the ex­plo­sions, the bursts of light and thun­der, and the mas­sive tum­bling walls of snow rac­ing down through the dark­ness. And the evening and the morn­ing are the sec­ond day.

As To­mas and his fam­ily re­lax for lunch on the sun-warmed out­side deck of the re­sort’s restau­rant, they hear a dis­tant boom, and far above, a wide swath of snow be­gins to move. “Don’t worry,” To­mas as­sures his kids, “it’s a con­trolled avalanche.” Va­ca­tion­ers grab their phones and start tak­ing pic­tures. But the avalanche picks up speed and seems to be head­ing di­rectly to­ward them. Peo­ple be­gin to scream and panic. As the wall of snow bears down on them, To­mas grabs his gloves and phone and bolts. Mean­while, Ebba dives for the floor with the chil­dren, and the deck be­comes en­veloped in a blind­ing fog of white.

Mo­ments later, the cri­sis has passed. The avalanche did not reach the deck, the white shroud was only the pow­dery mist it kicked up. Ev­ery­one is safe. To­mas re­turns, try­ing to act as if noth­ing has hap­pened.

But some­thing has. In his split-sec­ond, gut re­ac­tion to mor­tal ter­ror, he has aban­doned his fam­ily, aban­doned his role of male pro­tec­tor, and thought only of him­self. It can’t be un­done. And it won’t go away.

As de­fined in the Collins English Dic­tio­nary, the law term force ma­jeure al­ludes to an “ir­re­sistible force or com­pul­sion such as will ex­cuse a party from per­form­ing his or her part of a con­tract.” That’s the nub of this movie.

The ge­nie of male cow­ardice is out of the bot­tle, and it can’t be put back in or ex­plained away. The kids grow sullen. Ebba, es­pe­cially with a cou­ple of drinks in her, can’t let it go. She re­counts the tale to friends and strangers alike. To­mas claims to re­mem­ber the events dif­fer­ently, but he knows — and we know — he’s ly­ing. It’s not some­thing that can be apol­o­gized for, like in­fi­delity. It’s not like Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts in The Im­pos­si­ble, in which a fam­ily is blasted apart by a tsunami. Here, the force of na­ture that tears them apart is a force of hu­man na­ture that re­veals es­sen­tial weak­ness and shame.

There are four more days to go, and Force Ma­jeure takes us through them. Another cou­ple ar­rives, a red­bearded old friend of To­mas’ with his young mis­tress in tow. He tries to put the best spin he can on the story, but only winds up later in bed get­ting put down by his lit­tle blonde.

This isn’t a uni­formly solid movie. There are scenes that don’t hold up, that don’t seem to make much sense. Ebba has their friends watch a video of the event on To­mas’ iPhone — what kind of footage could there pos­si­bly be? To­mas locks him­self out of his room, and it doesn’t oc­cur to him to go down to the desk and ask for a re­place­ment key card — is the point that he’s worth­less in any kind of a cri­sis? There’s an odd jan­i­tor who looks men­ac­ing. There’s an awk­ward stab at re­demp­tion to­ward the end, and a fi­nal scene of puzzling am­bi­gu­ity.

But the key event, the in­stinc­tive ig­no­ble act of self-preser­va­tion, is all it takes to send you out of the theater with some­thing un­com­fort­able to think and talk about in the days ahead.

— Jonathan Richards

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