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FATHERS MUDDLE THROUGH A COUPLE OF FESTIVAL ENTRIES

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

For the last couple of years, I have indulged in a fascination with Scandinavian crime fiction, both on the page and on screens – large and small. I’ve marveled at and championed everything from the wildly popular Millennium Trilogy from Stieg Larsson – and find it difficult to choose between the Swedish original of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” featuring Noomi Rapace as hacker extraordinaire Lisbeth Salander and David Fincher’s icy remake starring Rooney Mara – to Morten Tyldum’s spirited adaptation of the Jo Nesbø thriller “Headhunters,” which I happened to catch during a public screening at the Toronto International Film Festival a few years back. I have read Camilla Läckberg’s thrillers and religiously tuned into the ratings-averse U.S. remake of the television series “The Killing.”

But nothing could have prepared me for the all-out assault on the state of fatherhood presented in a pair of Scandinavian features gracing Toronto International Film Festival’s (TIFF) screens this year. Friday morning, the second day of the festival (which also happened to be my birthday), I settled into a seat for “Force Majeure” from writer-director Ruben Östlund, about a picture-perfect Swedish family on vacation in the French Alps. Father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is a typical hard-working provider in need of time away from his phone. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is the enviable stable, hot mother to the blonde, button-cute Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren).

Complications arise when, during lunch on a deck overlooking the slopes, a controlled avalanche appears ready to overtake the restaurant patrons, including Tomas and his brood. In a flash, Tomas transitions from capturing footage on his iPhone to bolting the scene, with little or no concern for Ebba and the kids. After the snow dust clears, Tomas chooses to ignore and/or downplay his reaction, but Ebba, in particular, can’t dismiss things, triggering a series of avalanche aftershocks and conversations with friends and Tomas that unearth emotional fault lines in their relationship and those of any and everyone who comes into contact with them.

“Force Majeure” documents with fierce drama and startling dark comedy questions about who we are in times of crises, what it means to be heroic, and whether gender bias is inherent in our instinctual reactions. Most intriguing, though, is the portrayal of Tomas and his dilemma. He is the current iteration of the stereotypical father figure rooted in the 1950s – the little-seen provider, ill-prepared to be present in the ongoing family dynamic. Cell phones and technology form the chasm that once was an absence based on long hours in the office. Work continues to come first. Is there a man, a father, out there who would react selflessly to sacrifice himself for his children, which is a more pointed query than merely expecting him to defend them from some physical threat?

An answer of sorts came to me a day later in Academy Award winner (Best Foreign Language Film for “In A Better World”) Susanne Bier’s “A Second Chance,” a morality play of a drama about a detective named Andreas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a stand-up officer with a beautiful wife (Maria Bonnevie) and a newborn son who cries endlessly. Andreas, never missing a beat, always offers to take the tyke out for night-time drives to lull the baby to sleep, despite losing precious rest himself.

On the job, Andreas encounters a recently-released drug offender (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) with a new baby of his own, one that unfortunately lies neglected in a closet covered in his own piss and feces. It is more than Andreas can stand, this injustice, but when an unthinkable tragedy strikes Andreas and his wife, the good father/husband/cop makes an implausible decision, with devastating repercussions.

These Scandinavian tales lay bare a world in which nothing is clear-cut for men struggling to define the institution of fatherhood. Reaction or no action at all, what choice exists for these men? These are no-win scenarios, but fodder for eternally uncomfortable debates.