Force Majeure: For approximately the first two minutes of this confrontational, uncomfortable Swedish drama (Magnolia, $13.49 Blu-ray, $12.14 DVD), its central family of four is having a happy vacation in the Les Arcs ski resort in Savoie, France. Some laughs are exchanged and photographs are taken, as father Thomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their kids Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) pose for overpriced tourist glossies in front of the majestic slopes.
All is always well in photographs, but underneath the façade, the world roils. Almost immediately, an undercurrent of tension ripples across Tomas and Ebba’s marriage, as minor lies are dispensed and uncovered; Tomas, we soon learn, is a workaholic and has troubled ignoring his cellphone while on a family vacation. But nothing prepares the family for the character-revealing near-miss on its second morning, when a controlled avalanche barrels down near the outdoor restaurant of their resort lodge, blanketing the building in white but causing no damage. But Tomas panics, instinctively fleeing the scene and his family, while Ebba stays to protect her children. For Tomas, it looks pretty bad no matter how you slice it, though any one of us might have done the same thing.
The incident has a lasting emotional impact on Ebba, who now feels her husband is a coward who abandons his family when the going gets rough; Tomas doesn’t help matters by living in a self-designed bubble of denial and avoidance. They can’t help but open up this can of marital worms for anyone who will listen, including their friends Mats and Fanni (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius), who in turn engage in their own verbal fisticuffs over Mats’ hypothetical response to a similar threat. Force Majeure is a superb exploration of the way we let unhealthy emotions fester, gnawing at our insides like termites.
Director Ruben Östlund reveals a masterful understanding of human behavior, finding compassion in both characters’ arguments and discovering dark humor between the lines of their friction. Östlund’s direction is cool and detached, a welcome cry from the shaky, invasive Dogme style pioneered in Scandinavia in the ’90s — though it shares some of that movement’s insightful treatment of domestic discord. But what ultimately elevates Östlund’s film is his understanding of his milieu.
His first movies were skiing documentaries, and here, he films the benign sounds of the resort like the sinister rumblings of a war zone: the controlled explosions, the employees cleaning the slopes every night in tank-like vehicles, Harry’s hobbyist drone buzzing around the sky like a military aircraft. It all makes for a visual correlative to Tomas and Ebba’s inner turmoil, and its penultimate scene could not make for a more powerful metaphor: The family skiing down a slope with little to no visibility, plunging into an uncertain future.
Every Man For Himself: Godard himself famously called this 1980 feature (Criterion, $22.49 Blu-ray, $22.99 DVD) his “second first film,” a clever marketing line that also speaks to his return to commercial filmmaking after a difficult decade in the experimental hinterlands. This is a Godard film with an honest-to-goodness narrative, by God, with its visionary director couching his formal eccentricities in logical, human motivations. It intimates the glorious return to beauty and emotion that made his ’80s period, in films like Passion and Hail Mary, so interesting.
Every Man for Himself is a playful, seriocomic triptych of modern malaise — as the critic Colin MacCabe calls it in his video-essay supplement, it’s “less a story about three people than a portrait of Europe at the end of the 20th century.” A filmmaker significantly named Paul Godard (Jacques Dutronc) drifts through an uninspiring project while trying to reconcile his inevitably severed relationship with ex-girlfriend Denise (Nathalie Baye); Denise tries to sell her apartment and find a job at a newspaper while embarking on a new chapter of life; and Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) plies her trade as a dispassionate prostitute to the Dionysian deviants of what we now call the One Percent.
Godard’s onscreen avatar may be in a creative and personal mire, but the man behind the camera is in top form in Every Man for Himself, commenting on contemporary life with a clear eye, a perceptive ear, even an open heart. The film is both satire and reflection of late 20th-century commerce, with its ghastly-funny sex scene in a businessman’s loft deconstructing sex as a complex business transaction of many moving parts, all of them divorced from the passion of human connection.
The movie is filled with surprising audiovisual mismatches that blur the boundary between diegetic and nondiegetic sound, including a brilliant climactic gag. And Godard’s experimentation with slow-motion photography reaches its apogee here, freeze-framing scenes in the herky-jerky motion of today’s Internet buffering, suggesting relationships that proceed only in fits and starts.
But the best elements of Every Man for Himself are its bonkers surrealist asides: After a mirthless ‘70s, this enfant terrible finally found rediscovered his perverse sense of humor. This Criterion disc is worth owning even for casual Godard fans. Don’t miss the hour-long supplemental interview with Godard on The Dick Cavett Show, which finds the filmmaker in an atypically honest, welcoming and not at all ornery mode.
Stray Dogs: A man stands motionless on a highway island, holding an advertising sign, a figure of stasis at an intersection of urban bustle. He’s so invisible to the world he might as well be a ghost; he’s not a person so much as a part of the landscape. It’s a distressingly apt metaphor for the sorry protagonist of Tsai Ming-Liang’s moving and beguiling 2014 swan song Stray Dogs (Cinema Guild, $22.99 Blu-ray, $19.83 DVD).
He and his children, a boy and girl (only the children have names, which are the names of the actors themselves, Yi Cheng Lee and Yi Chieh Lee), represent just some of the stray dogs of the title, subsisting on the margins of society. He is homeless with a severe drinking problem, while his offspring while away their hours at a local supermarket, where the daughter finds a mother figure in a nurturing employee. These scenes leading to some devastatingly observant moments — the daughter waiting for a stranger to finish his lunch so she can consume his scraps, the son stealing a full roll of bathroom tissue for use at home, aka a bed in an abandoned building.
Much of the movie proceeds with the authenticity of a microcosmic documentary about a family that haunts society rather than actively participates in it. But Tsai also includes shots that move in a dreamlike slow motion. In others, he holds the camera on the same unmoving image for so long that even the people in the frame becomes still-lifes — human objects on a canvas. (Tsai is one of the world’s foremost practitioners of slow cinema, so prepare to fidget a bit during some of the director’s epic 10-minute shots.)
Still other shots flirt with surrealism, including a bizarre diversion in which the father discovers an empty mansion and lives, for one night, in luxury. And what are we to make of the half-hour toward the end of the picture, in which the man and his kids live with a woman — the same one from the grocery store — in an honest-to-goodness house, complete with bathtub and massage chair, but whose dilapidated walls that look like the concrete equivalent of overgrown weeds? Is it a flashback? A flash-forward? An alternate reality? All three options crossed my mind, and while one of them won out, all are possible in this fascinatingly ambiguous journey — one that expects as much from its audience as its actors.
Dear White People: Don’t be surprised if this zeitgeisty, time capsule-ready debut from writer-director Justin Simien (Lionsgate, $14.99 Blu-ray, $12.96 DVD) will become many viewers’ new favorite film. It follows the machinations, calculations and conflicted emotions of the black minority at a predominantly white Ivy League university (it’s called Winchester, but it could be any of the real ones), in the weeks leading up to a patently offensive, race-baiting student party.
Like a casual observer wandering through various rooms of a house, Simien offers brief, insightful and frequently intercut snippets of modern black angst, from a sociopolitically pungent mixed-race filmmaker and radio host (Tessa Thompson) and an aspiring reality-show diva and vlogger (Teyonah Parris) to a white-pandering former student house president (Brendan P. Bell) and a sensitive, gay and impressively Afroed writer (Tyler James Williams).
Dear White People has a veneer of rambling plotlessness, even as its characters’ clashing motivations come to a head like a gathering storm — in part because of its humorous and potent diversions, its stylish treatment of on-screen text and its shambling pop-savvy dialogue, which often arrives in an exhaustively Sorkinian barrage that requires a second viewing to grasp it all. You get the impression Simien had to make this movie because no other black filmmaker has: Dear White People is a scattershot corrective to the cultural cesspool of most contemporary African-American cinema, providing a unashamedly didactic breath of fresh air. The film is buoyed by sharp and even profound reflections on race, power, sexuality, identity, and society’s preconceptions of all of these things.
Would that Simien were as strong a director as he is a writer: Many of the compositions and transitions in Dear White People are clunky, aesthetically awkward and reek of misapplied art-house pretention (it shows that one of his favorite directors is Bergman, but this is an unBergman-like film), but this will improve with subsequent movies. He is a director to watch, without question.
Le Pont du Nord: Seven years after he directed the monumental Celine and Julie Go Boating, Jacques Rivette directed this mysterious tale, also about two women who meet by chance and embark on adventures (Kino, $22.19 Blu-ray, $17.89 DVD). When renegade motorcyclist Baptiste (Pascale Ogier) nearly collides into pedestrian Marie (Bulle Ogier, Pascale’s real-life mother), it’s only the first in a chain of chance meetings — or fateful rendezvous — that pair up these disparate strangers as unlikely sleuths in a nefarious conspiracy. Baptiste is a petty thief and vandal, while Marie is a just-released ex-convict hoping to reconnect with shady boyfriend Julien (Pierre Clementi), whose briefcase leads both of them into trouble.
Clocking in at a lean (for Rivette, anyway) 128 minutes, this daylit, ambling film-noir deconstruction addresses themes of coincidence versus predestination, and of seeing the world in shades of grays versus the black-or-white binary. It’s intellectually engaging throughout, never predictable, and just a scoche surrealist, making it a good starter film for those who want to dive into Rivette’s intimidating oeuvre.
Those already acclimated to his signature style will love this long-unavailable masterpiece, particularly the subtle significance he injects into even the smallest details, from dialogue to wardrobe to the décor of his mise-en-scène. Two of his trademark themes — fatalism and the idea of life as theater — emerge in the film’s unconventional final reel, but the element of Le Pont du Nord that endures the most is its conception of Paris as a treacherous board game mapped out by its characters. The City of Lights becomes the third major character in the film, with its boulevards, city centers, construction sites, railways and crumbling 19th-century vestiges creating a cobwebby catacomb of ludic possibility.
Watership Down: It’s about animals, but of course it isn’t. In Martin Rosen’s groundbreaking 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams’ best-selling adventure novel (Criterion, $27.59 Blu-ray, $22.99 DVD), a colony of rabbits escape their warren after a psychic bunny, Fiver, predicts an apocalyptic future.
Dismissed by their rabbit chief and briefly apprehended by the rabbit police force, Fiver embarks with his brother, Hazel, and six other rabbits on a journey toward a heart of darkness, with predators lurking behind every bush and brick. Only after dodging cars, rats, cats, dogs, owls, plows and gunfire do they meet their ultimate enemy: A tyrannical fellow-rabbit who works his underlings like a slave driver.
The anthropomorphized critters that live, die and transcend time and space as we know it in Watership Down are more real than many of the cardboard protags of Western action cinema, and they earn your instant emotional investment — despite a primitive animation style that will appear crude and imperfect when compared to the slick CGI of today. But if its hand-drawn quaintness is part of its ragged charm, its sociopolitical inquiry is where its ultimate sophistication presides. This is a morally sturdy, even prescient, drama of Orwellian insight.
Persecution of the Other, the power of communal cooperation, oppression and occupation, apartheid and revolution, deforestation and the destruction of Earth’s habitats — the heart of Watership Down bleeds with these adult concepts, as much as its rabbits bleed from intense internecine battles. There are nightmarish visions of species genocide, and sobering dialogue that could have been lifted from an activist documentary today: “They’ll never rest until they’ve spoiled the Earth,” one rabbit observes.
As successful as Pixar has been at injecting animated films with grown-up concerns, Rosen went a deeper and more disturbing route decades earlier. When characters die in Disney and Pixar movies, it’s a ceremonial rite of passage; when they succumb in Watership Down, it’s immediate and unsentimental — a fact of life and a reality of evolution. This is a rare but unassailably worthy entry into Criterion’s minuscule roster of animated films, presented here with an enlightening introduction by Guillermo Del Toro, who contextualizes the movie in the history of renegade animation; and a new interview with Rosen, who remarkably knew nothing about animation when he took the project on.
The Night They Raided Minsky’s: Producer Norman Lear and director William Friedkin took advantage of Hollywood’s loosening production codes to create this bawdy fish-out-of-water comedy (Olive, $19.99 Blu-ray, $17.99 DVD) based on an apocryphal origin of the striptease, circa 1925 at Minsky’s Burlesque, the “Poor Man’s follies.”
Rachel Schpitendavel (Britt Ekland), an Amish girl with aspirations to be a big-city dancer, steals away from her farm and arrives by train in the multicultural bustle of New York’s markets and storefronts, presented by Friedkin initially in nostalgic black-and-white, which gradually mutates into Technicolor. By the time this innocent lamb stumbles across an advertisement for Minsky’s, it’s like Dorothy discovering Oz, if Oz was a tawdry burlesque.
A Rolodex of fine character actors from the period liven up this saucy but affectionate tribute to its chauvinistic milieu, including Elliott Gould as the titular proprietor, Jason Robards as the burlesque’s skirt-chasing straight man, and Norman Wisdom as its cripplingly nice banana man. The screenplay, co-written by Lear from a novel by Rowland Barber, pivots on the conflict between religious piety and secular vice embodied by the beautiful and corseted Rachel, who is accepted into the burlesque fold to perform her signature Biblical dance as a plot to subvert a police raid instigated a powerful moral crusader (Denholm Elliott). Between the backstage rivalries and cockamamie plots, everything goes comically haywire.
Friedkin directs with the same gritty urgency he brought to iconic actioners, not to mention a freewheeling inventiveness regarding sound and color. But the film’s lasting achievement may be its ability to find pathos underneath the comedy, vulgarity and hucksterism; it even channels an and-of-an-era poignancy.