Disaster movies usually adhere to a strictly prescribed formula: Introduce a large cast of sympathetic characters up front, then, after three acts of buildup and foreshadowing, kill the majority of them off in a grandly staged climactic catastrophe, while a few hardy souls struggle heroically to survive.
"Force Majeure," the pitiless and brilliant fourth feature from the Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund, deliberately upends just about every one of these rules. Only a few minutes after introducing a very small cast of fairly unsympathetic characters, the movie cuts straight to a distinctly unclimactic disaster, which doesn’t kill anyone.
That’s because the real catastrophe in "Force Majeure," unfolding in slow motion before our ever-more-horrified eyes, is the collapsing marriage of Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), a handsome, well-off couple who’ve come to a posh ski resort in the French Alps with their two catalog-perfect blond children.
A remark Ebba makes to a fellow guest at check-in suggests that Tomas has been too caught up in his work of late and that the trip is a bid to bring the family closer. Other than that, we learn very little about their life back in Sweden, not even what line of work Tomas is so absorbed by (though he’s evidently successful at it—this family travels in style, awash in electronic gizmos and fancy ski gear).
Over the course of their five-day vacation—each one marked off by its own numbered chapter—the family will approach the brink of disintegration and teeter there for a long, tense moment, like a skier poised at the top of a sickeningly vertiginous slope.
“Don’t worry, they’ve got it under control,” Tomas assures his wife and kids as they watch a wall of snow approaching the stunning deck where they’re having breakfast in advance of their second day out on the trails. He’s correct that the snowslide began as a controlled one; we see a cannon setting it off as part of the ski resort’s ongoing safety maintenance. But “control” is a slippery concept when it comes to harnessing the forces of nature, human or geological.
As the white mass races toward the cafe (and, in a simple but terrifying special effect, directly at the audience), the diners snapping photos from the deck start to fear they might be in real danger. For a long half-minute or so, the screen goes white, the only sound that of screaming and confusion. Then, as the air begins to clear, we see that the avalanche has in fact stopped well short of swamping the actual resort—everyone and everything is fine. The cloud of what Ebba will later refer to as “avalanche smoke” rapidly subsides, leaving both kids asking the question that will become the crux of the movie: Where did Daddy go?
Tomas soon reappears at the table and sits down with his family to finish breakfast, snow still dusting their plates. But the question of how her husband could have bolted during those seconds of panic eats away at Ebba and threatens the rest of the trip.
As they have a drink in the hotel bar with a couple they’ve just met, Ebba can’t stop poking barbed fun at Tomas’ momentary abandonment, leaving him humiliated and indignant. (His only defense is to deny his wife’s account without providing a credible alternative—if, as he claims, he wasn’t running away to save himself, what exactly was he doing?)
When they’re alone, though, the couple can barely bring themselves to discuss the event, so radically do their versions of it differ. The next few days are spent in literal and figurative blankness, skiing the blinding white peaks in silence all day and passing the evening in awkward half-confrontations about who did what, and why, in that moment of terror.
“I don’t recognize you. I don’t recognize myself,” Ebba tells Tomas during one argument. Östlund, an unstinting observer of human social behavior, mines that uncanny feeling of sudden dissociation from the familiar for all it’s worth, both verbally and visually.
The looming Alpine vistas, frequently seen from a great distance, are less post card–pretty than they are starkly menacing, as though another avalanche, a deadly one this time, could start at any moment. The camera’s remote perspective sometimes seems to ask how much the travails of these tiny human beings could possibly matter in an indifferently destructive universe.
Yet the moral riddle posed by Ebba’s and Tomas’ divergent responses on the deck that morning does matter, and not only because it could end this particular relationship. As the couple’s widening rift exposes the gender and class assumptions that underlie their marriage—Who’s the protector? Who’s the provider? Who, if anyone, can be trusted as far as you can throw them?—"Force Majeure" morphs into a biting critique of modern masculinity, of traditional parenting roles, and possibly of the institution of marriage itself.
"Force Majeure" (the title comes from a legal term for an act of God that frees both parties from a contract) is intellectually and visually enthralling and often savagely funny, but it also demands a significant investment of both patience and stamina on the viewer’s part.
There are long stretches of silence broken by scenes of grueling emotional rawness, played with go-for-broke intensity by the fearless Kongsli and Kuhnke. Several times, children are placed in situations of either physical danger or emotional violence. Clara and Vincent Wettergren, the young siblings (11 and 8 at the time of filming) who play Tomas and Ebba’s kids, don’t talk much, in the convenient way of movie children—but boy, do they convey that they’re miserably attuned to what’s going on.
Östlund’s style is chilly and hypercontrolled, with both dialogue and image constructed in such a way as to pack meaning into every detail. In one extended take, Ebba bustles around serving dinner to her family and some guests, gushing all the while about what a perfect vacation they’re having—the wonderful views, the ideal ski conditions. The entire time, the top of the frame cuts her head off at the neck, as if to emphasize her violent disconnection from the people seated around her table.
Later, a long, wine-fueled conversation with a younger couple, Mats and Fanny (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius), turns into an impromptu trial on the actions of the squirming, hedging Tomas. As alliances shift and accusations and self-justifications multiply, this four-person fiesta of soul-baring begins to resemble "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" filtered through Bergman’s "Scenes From a Marriage."
There’s one very late scene in which—to keep things vague—the family is placed in another potentially dangerous situation. Though arguably superfluous to the arc of the story that’s just been told, this ending is both unexpected and white-knuckle thrilling, and will provide an extra dash of salt to the post-movie dinner conversation "Force Majeure" is sure to inspire in any couple (or other closely bonded kinship unit) foolhardy enough to risk seeing it on a date.
“What would you do if that happened?” Fanny demands of her semi-serious boyfriend after they’ve finally extricated themselves from their evening spent refereeing Tomas and Ebba’s marital standoff. The younger couple then stays up the rest of the night debating the precise significance of every detail in this purely hypothetical life-or-death scenario. May you and whomever you see "Force Majeure" with end up doing the same.