Force Majeure hits too close to home

French flick took Grand Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes

Force Majeure. Directed by Ruben Ostlund. Starring Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli. Rating: 8 (out of 10)

A wayward bat once got into our house and flew wildly around the living room for what seemed like an eternity. I'll confess: I immediately abandoned my two toddlers and dove behind the sofa.

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I've often worried that that event was an indicator of my ability to protect my children in a real - nonbat-related - crisis. We all like to think that we would throw ourselves on top of the ones we love but who's to say we wouldn't run in the other direction?

Ruben Ostlund mulls over this question in Force Majeure, opening tonight at the Vancity Theatre. The film, which took the Grand Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes, is a thoughtful psychodrama about family and gender roles, the role of the modern patriarch in particular.

Workaholic Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) arrives with wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and two young children for a much-needed holiday in the French Alps. The Swedish family is picture-perfect, quite literally: the family poses for several magazineworthy glossy portraits in an opening scene.

The surroundings are breathtaking but ominously so. Almost completely devoid of score or soundtrack, much of the film occurs in nearsilence, with only the squeak of the rope-tow or the far-off booms of charges detonating to signal trouble to come.

On day two of the vacation the family is sitting at lunch on a patio with a million-dollar mountain view. The food has just been served when a controlled avalanche comes perilously close to the building. When the snow clears Tomas is nowhere to be found, having run for his life to save himself while Ebba protected Vera and Harry.

Ebba is shaken. She can't reconcile the fact that while she grabbed the kids, Tomas grabbed his cellphone and ran. Tomas' response of "you seem irritated" does nothing to ease the tension.

"You ran away from me and the kids," she says later, at dinner with new acquaintances. Tomas' abandonment pales against the fact that he refuses to acknowledge Ebba's version of events.

Suddenly even mundane acts like toothbrushing seem angrier, the mountain's grooming equipment more menacing. There are nighttime conversations in the hotel hallway out of earshot of the children, who are acting out, knowing something is amiss.

The debating continues when an old friend arrives at the resort (Kristofer Hivju) accompanied by his much-younger girlfriend (Fanni Metelius). Now Tomas isn't the only one whose manhood is called into question.

What follows is a painfully realistic examination of conscience by Tomas, emasculated by the realization that he ran, and a reckoning by Ebba, who ponders the need for a husband who can't be counted on when it matters.

Acting is uniformly great, the players conveying as much of their struggles using body language as with words, while Ostlund's white-out scenery is both majestic and alienating. You can't help but leave Force Majeure questioning your own familial usefulness, and chilled by the possible outcomes.

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