Force_MajeureForce Majeure, a new, impressively shot film from Sweden takes a stark but funny look at the fragile fibers that hold together a family of four when the actions of the father calls the unit’s existence into question. Director Ruben Östlund uses both humor and an efficient sense of drama to examine the role of the father that draws in the audience to consider today’s notion of what makes a man. It’s tight filmmaking in the best sense, as it never over-reaches the human drama at the center of it but has vast echoes beyond the image on screen.

Östlund, who also wrote the screenplay, presents a rather interesting portrait of a modern man who screws up in a big way with the wrong gesture. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a ski vacation with their young children, older sister Vera (Clara Wettergren) and younger brother Harry (Vincent Wettergren). The crux of the film is hinted at early on, with a photographer who bullies the family off camera into taking some portraits on the slopes. Tomas goes with it, following orders from the man, who is left unseen on the other side of the lens.


But the real drama begins after the family has a close encounter with an avalanche while dining at an outdoor restaurant … and Tomas runs away, leaving his panicked wife and screaming children at the table. After the screen goes white and the snow powder clears, others around them have a laugh at the scare. At the edge of the frame, one laughing man even points his thumb at Tomas, as he returns to his shaken family. Though physically unscathed, the emotional wounds will be profound.

The film is all about the various ways Tomas is tested following the incident. It comes out not only in Ebba’s very public manner in dealing with the trauma by recounting what had occurred in the company of other couples but also in Tomas’ private moments afterward. Though he insists that Ebba’s perception of what happened is somehow warped, there is also no denying a weight is now bearing down on him. He must find some way to deal with it, and though he tries in various, very human ways, it culminates in a delicious moment of humor and pathos that will test the family further.

The drama would never be as interesting as it is had Östlund not considered the many ways Tomas’ actions has reframed his role as a patriarch. The director wastes nothing in the film’s pacing, the characters’ gestures and actions and especially the movie’s potent visuals. Against a landscape at its most intimidating, using anamorphic, widescreen lenses, Östlund presents the fragility of the family brilliantly without being overt. Early in the film, before the avalanche, the director infuses a sense of dread into the movie by simply juxtaposing scenes of domestic banality and the nocturnal maintenance of the ski-slopes with controlled avalanches. Against the frantic, extra-diegetic sound of Ola Fløttum’s score of rumbling strings and accordion, the family brushes its teeth. Meanwhile, outside, canons explode over the slopes to loosen snow, and a snowmobile zips across the screen followed by three lumbering snow tractors. The music and the sounds of buzzing machines, be they electric toothbrushes or industrial machinery, toggle to monopolize the soundtrack during pauses in Fløttum’s witty score. Tomas, domesticated and contained, handles an electric toothbrush as well as his wife and two children. Meanwhile, outside, in the night, real men, who we never see, speed around in machines to do manly work. Who knows? They might even be women.


Östlund wants the viewer to not only consider the man’s reaction during the avalanche but other details. It’s about gender roles in a modern age where everyone should be considered equal, lest you be considered sexist or politically incorrect. Though it does not come up in the movie, it is interesting to note that in Sweden it is not uncommon for a man to choose to take the wife’s last name when they marry. It’s important to consider this film comes from a country with such advanced ideas of gender roles. The film also brings up the idea of open marriage during an opportunity Ebba has to have a chat with a fellow married female vacationer who seems much happier than she does.

This is not the first time manliness has been called into question with a gesture in film (The Loneliest Planet did it more austerely: Film Review: the insignificance of trauma in the land of ‘The Loneliest Planet’), but that Östlund can find humor while considering a drama that has real pathos (you will feel for these people) is commendable. Force Majeure is smartly entertaining, shocking and funny, and it presents one of those hypothetical situations that demands discussion after the house lights go up. It presents it all in a tidy package with powerful performances and a sly, steady camera that’s both ironic and focused. It’s one of those great art house experiences that provokes on many levels without feeling cruel or overly serious, and it stands as one of the best cinematic experiences of 2014. It’s plain ingenious on all levels of cinematic story-telling and should not be missed.

Hans Morgenstern

Force Majeure runs 118 minutes, is in Swedish and English with English subtitles and Rated R (there’s some language and brief nudity). It opened exclusively in South Florida in at this Miami Beach Cinematheque this Friday. On Nov. 14., it expands to the Gateway 4 in Fort Lauderdale and the Lake Worth Playhouse. It may already be playing at other theaters across the U.S. To check other screening locations, visit this website. Magnolia Pictures provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

lfls_webWith his latest film, Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda adds another film to his oeuvre that closely examines familial relations and how the smallest efforts can resolve the most daunting of circumstances. The most difficult obstacles to overcome often arise between people who love one another the most. One of the most powerful relationships has to be that between a father and son. With Like Father, Like Son, Kore-eda brews up a situation and digs so deep it cuts to a core rarely seen in cinema, despite what some may think is a plot contrivance.

Ryota and Midori Nonomiya (Masaharu Fukuyama and Machiko Ono) are a well-off husband and wife living in a luxury condo with an only child, 6-year-old Keita (Keita Ninomiya). Ryota is a hard-working project manager involved in a plan to up-date the design of Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, the central hub of Japanese transportation. Midori is a stay-at-home mom who makes sure Keita practices his piano, despite the little boy only having the ability to muster a halting version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The fact that Keita never protests and finds a way to stay satisfied with his piano lessons despite his mediocrity seems to quietly annoy his parents who send him mixed messages of encouragement (the father) or offer him a choice to stop (the mother).

Using a wit that’s subtly humorous but still brews pathos, Kore-eda sets up audience sympathy for this family with a few, well-placed lines early in the film. During a quick interview by a panel at a prestigious private school for Keita, the couple says a few words about their child as he sits between them, hands politely on his knees. “He doesn’t mind losing, which is dissatisfying as a father,” says Ryota. The one compliment the father is able to say about Keita is that he is kind, noting he takes after his mother. “These days kindness is a fault,” he adds.


Indeed there’s a coldness here. Kore-eda has a keen eye as sharp as his sense for dialogue. He highlights stark, neat architecture around this family for transitional, establishing shots. Later on, when things turn earthier, he focuses on nature and at another home important to the story’s eventual plot, defined by a sensibility that may seem chaotic but still has a warmth and easy-going atmosphere.

As any good upper middle class couple, the Nonomiyas strive to provide the best for their son. However, one day, they get a phone call from the hospital where Keita was born informing the couple to come in for news about their son. “I hope it’s nothing messy,” says the rigid father. He may be more concerned about how this might take away from his time at work and not the impact it might have on his son.

He has no idea.

Six years after the fact, it has come to the hospital’s attention that the Nonomiyas’ son had been switched at birth. The hospital has identified the couple who mistakenly got their biological son and where Keita came from. “In cases like these,” says a hospital official, “One hundred percent of families exchange.”


It will turn out the Nonomiyas’ biological son lives with a tinkering shopkeeper in the outskirts of the small town of the hospital where Midori insisted to have their first child because that was where she was born. “This is pathetic,” comments Ryota, as they pull up to the shop with its aging storefront. Yudai Saiki (Rirî Furankî) is a man with seemingly little ambition and already has three children with his take-charge wife, Yukari (Yôko Maki). It will turn out the eldest and tallest of all the kids is Ryosuke (Isao Natsuyagi), who originally belonged to the Nonomiyas.

The families agree to have meetings and introduce the boys to one another. Yudai makes sure to collect receipts so the hospital picks up the tab for meals (and maybe indulges in a little extra). Ryota, meanwhile, plots with a lawyer to take custody of both boys. The fact that Yudai puts an end to Ryota’s plans with a slap reveals Kore-eda’s brilliant sense to present powerful “statement” moments that undo many a complex ploy, and this film has many such powerful, blink-of-an-eye moments of resonance that pitch the plot along, despite what some may think is an indulgent two-hour run time.

Ultimately, this film finds a way to tug at your heartstrings in a beautiful, stirring, multi-layered manner that speaks to undeniable bonds of family despite what might seem like a contrived situation. It’s a crowd-pleaser of a film, so it’s no wonder it won the jury prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. But it doesn’t only go for the gut. It examines a complex relationship between fathers and sons and the cycle of behavior often inherited and passed along in families. Though Ryota may sound villainous, Kore-eda, who also wrote the script, fleshes him out to make him as sympathetic as his own, saucer-eyed, innocent of a “son,” little Keita.


Speaking to the power of the writing and pacing of the film, the majority of Like Father, Like Son’s best moments lie in short, revealing scenes that present telling behaviors of all those involved. The film opens and closes with some sentimental, spare piano melodies (in ironic contrast to Keita’s playing) and moments of over-explicating dialogue, but it’s easily forgiven, as the film goes on to explore the relationship on several, organic scenes without scoring. For much of the film, Like Father, Like Son looks deep within family, defying notions of sentimentality. Its greatness lies in the purest moments of raw, relatable family drama that pile up like neat bricks in a wall that will either unite these people or divide them.

Hans Morgenstern

Like Father, Like Son runs 121 minutes, is in Japanese with English subtitles and is not rated (nothing offensive about it). It’s now probably at a theater near you (visit the film’s official site linked at the top of this review). In South Florida, it has already opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Bill Cosford Cinema on Friday, Feb. 21. The following week, starting Feb. 28, it expands to the MDCulture Art Cinema at Koubek Theater. IFC sent me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)