The cannons above the ski slopes go off every night, their echoes booming across the Alpine valley. They’re supposed to trigger controlled avalanches, but some avalanches can’t be controlled, especially when the snows have piled up as deeply as they have in the complacent Swedish family at the heart of “Force Majeure.”
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, the film is a cruelly precise, often bleakly comic account of upper-middle-class privilege coming unglued when the cosmos throws a curveball. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are on a ski vacation in the French Alps with their two young children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). They’re a handsome family, suitable for framing in an IKEA commercial. He’s a trim master of the universe, she’s a slim beauty, the kids are almost generically attractive.
Having lunch on the ski lodge balcony, they witness an avalanche across the valley; it keeps coming and coming and suddenly the onlookers’ awe becomes unease and then panic. While the mother turns to her children, the father grabs his cellphone and bolts. After the fog clears, the avalanche is revealed to have stopped well short of the lodge, and Tomas returns. Being good Scandinavians, they don’t discuss the matter, but you can tell everything has changed by the look Harry gives his father in the lift line. I hope my kid never looks at me like that.
“Force Majeure” is about how that one sin festers beneath the characters’ skins until it breaks out in the looniest places. Ebba starts drinking humongous glasses of red wine and retelling the avalanche story to anyone who will listen, hoping to break through her husband’s denials. Tomas keeps cool until his composure finally gets chipped away, leading to one of the great manly meltdowns of recent movies. That all this emotional carnage unfolds in the tasteful modern interiors of Les Arcs, a ski resort in Savoie, France, only adds to the sense of profound existential discombobulation.
Like a virus, the angst is catching. Tomas and Ebba are joined by his friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju), a burly he-man, and Mats’s 20-year-old girlfriend, Fanny (Fanni Metelius), and soon they’re arguing into the night about what Mats would do if the snows came rumbling down. You’ll probably have a similar conversation after the credits roll. Good luck with that.
“Force Majeure” is as cool a movie as they come and some have taken it for a drama of marital dissolution along the lines of Bergman’s “Scenes From a Marriage.” Östlund is after bigger game, though, and the more apt great-director reference is to Luis Bunuel, who loved to pin the bourgeoisie to disasters of their own making, chuckling fondly as they wriggled.
This is a comedy, in other words; just one that exchanges Bunuel’s Spanish warmth for a dispassionate Nordic chill. There are touches of surrealism, like the crazed male-bonding ritual— half sweat lodge, half fratboy rave — into which Tomas stumbles in his distress, and there’s a mysterious outsider figure in the person of the resort’s custodian, always hovering silently nearby as the couple unravels. Is he a stand-in for us? For God? Or is he just there to tighten the screws on Tomas and Ebba?
“Force Majeure” implies they had it coming and so do we — the almost-catastrophe that reveals the thinness of the civilized crust on which we tread. Even the children, wide-eyed little buggers addicted to their iPads, could use the lesson. Östlund skillfully builds his story to a climax on the ski slopes, the screen gone white in an agony of suspense, and then he lets his little family go, along with their fellow vacationers and the rest of us. It’s a long way down that mountain, and night is falling.
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