Covering much of the same ground as The Loneliest Planet, only without the tedious sub-Antonioni posturing, writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s mordantly playful Force Majeure comes down on the essential hollowness of traditional gender roles like the avalanche that proves to be its inciting event. The man and woman offered up as the objects of its anthropological gaze are Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a Swedish married couple vacationing at a fancy ski resort in the French Alps. Along with their children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wetterngren), they’re initially established as the ideal domestic unit, all Nordic good looks and seemingly effortless camaraderie. There is, however, an uneasy undercurrent to the pointedly banal early scenes. Ostlund’s chilly aesthetic choices hang over the family’s comfortable routine like a storm cloud, accumulating portent through wide-angle shots of majestic yet forbidding snowscapes and the ominous rumbling of avalanche-triggering detonations, the long takes pregnant with the promise of disaster.
Unsurprisingly, the façade cracks. On the second afternoon, as the family eats lunch in an outdoor café with a panoramic view of the slopes, a controlled avalanche appears to snowball out of control. As the tsunami-like wall of snow rapidly approaches, curiosity gives way to panic. Ebba’s reflexive reaction is to shield the children. Tomas, on the other hand, flees the scene and abandons his family, though not before rescuing his smartphone from the table. The whiteout dissipates immediately after, turning out to have been nothing more than a residual cloud from the distant explosion. All this occurs in a single, locked-off shot, leaving no scope for subjective interpretations.
What follows is the protracted post-mortem of a family that had, in a sense, died in that café after all. Even if the potential reconciliation teased in the third act was to hold for a year or 10, it’s made obvious that mutual trust and respect would never be entirely regained. For a while, Tomas refuses to admit to any wrongdoing at all, only giving way tearfully when confronted by a drunk and angry Ebba over dinner with their friends, Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius). It’s during this masterful but excruciating scene that the battle lines are drawn explicitly along the gender divide. Mats defends Tomas, rationalizing his abandonment as an unthinking act of animal instinct, even as his girlfriend, Fanny, hugs Ebba and looks at her own man in a newly skeptical light. Later, in a scene (of many) that ensures that Force Majeure is the worst possible film to watch with one’s significant other, Fanny taunts a defensive Mats with loaded hypotheticals, speculating about what he might have done in Tomas’s place. Her conclusions aren’t encouraging.
Ostlund has a keen ear for dialogue and a perfect grasp of the push-and-pull rhythms of an imploding relationship, the myriad ways in which couples can hit each other’s buttons. Ebba cuts through Tomas’s flailing machismo like butter, dragging his deflated ego and rampant immaturity into the open for all to see. Her loss of respect for him is spectacular in its fallout and withering expression, contrasted against the increasingly pathetic figure cut by the emasculated Tomas as he considers the ramifications of his cowardice on his status as alpha male and family patriarch. The script, while witty and layered in a manner that’s equal parts Michael Haneke and Elaine May, is somewhat stagy, but Ostlund’s considerable visual flair and the actors’ committed performances ensure that the end result is triumphantly cinematic.
Despite the weight of the philosophical questions being pondered, Ostlund and his cast also display the ability to mine comedy from the unlikeliest corners. Force Majeure is as sustained an exercise in cringe-inducing humor as anything produced by Larry David or Ricky Gervais, and arguably more controlled, turning on a dime between exquisitely calibrated laughs and unsettling emotional violence. Heated exchanges are abruptly rendered hilarious by cutting away to a reaction shot or by a change in the participants’ emotional register. A stony-faced janitor appears at the most inopportune moments to witness, gargoyle-like, some of the characters’ more hysterical outbursts. A laughably chest-thumping boys-day-out in which Mats and Tomas hit the slopes for a bit of mutual ego bolstering is undermined by two unwitting female tourists in one of the film’s funniest scenes.
But we’re never allowed to forget that we’re laughing at these characters. Ostlund has little compassion for these people, ensconced as they are in their cocoons of bourgeois privilege and identity. Not even Ebba emerges unscathed, as her eventual restoration of order through an implied act of self-sacrifice is seemingly reversed by an ambiguous ending that levels the playing field in sardonic fashion. Final judgment, however, is left to the viewers, all of whom are undoubtedly taking measure of their personal ratios of civilized nobility to instinctive selfishness. It’s not a self-assessment that can easily be made and that, in the end, is the most terrifying thing about Force Majeure. It gives lie to the idea that we can ever truly know ourselves or the people we share our lives with.