When what is mistaken for a disastrous force of Mother Nature triggers a man's cowardly act, a marriage and family start to collapse in “Force Majeure.” Writer-director Ruben Ostlund expands a thin premise into a funny, tense and pointed look at the modern male and at gender roles and realities in this Swedish satire.
Bound to earn Ostlund (“Play”) recognition on our shores, the film combines a domestic-crisis thriller with a battle-of-the-sexes comedy and takes aim at bourgeois attitudes, somewhat a la Michael Haneke or Claude Chabrol.
Ostlund covers five days in the life of a Swedish family. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and young children Vera and Harry (Clara and Vincent Wettergren) are vacationing at an upscale alpine ski resort – a site that, like the foursome, seems a bit too pretty and secure.
On day two, in a visually stunning passage, a “controlled avalanche” – a safety procedure – gets scary, and a rush of frozen whiteness floods the terrace where the family and others are lunching. Tomas grabs his cell phone and bolts, leaving Ebba to protect the kids amid the confusion.
The “avalanche,” thankfully, was just intense mist, but Tomas' abandonment of the family deeply upsets Ebba.
She tells others – including Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), a couple who begin engaging in their own debate over gender and cravenness – about Tomas' behavior. Tomas, in denial, continues claiming that he, not Ebba, was levelheaded during the incident.
The issue threatens to destroy the couple's marriage and frightens the kids. Can Tomas redeem himself?
Ostlund doesn't supply much plot, and, running nearly two hours, the movie contains dry spots. And Ostlund's introduction of two additional potential disasters, which can be interpreted in various ways, could use more clarity.
At the same time, the movie is an on-target, astutely funny satire about masculinity, expectations of bravery and chivalry, self-preservation and the tenuousness of seemingly solid marital bonds.
A skillful storyteller verbally and visually, Ostlund also writes sharp dialogue. His lack of detail about the characters' backgrounds proves effective in that it gives the family a symbolic quality. Body language conveys volumes. Images of skiers looking minuscule amid the snowy vastness suggest vulnerability and arrogance. Small explosions at the resort, deliberately conducted to control the snow, make viewers uneasy despite their worthy purpose.
Acting is excellent, including the children, whose characters say little but radiate anxiety. In an affecting moment, young Harry sobs, terrified his parents will divorce. Ostlund has said the movie was partly inspired by studies indicating that, during maritime disasters, men are more likely than women to run away to save themselves.
Starring: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius
Written and directed by: Ruben Ostlund
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes