Film review: Force Majeure 

click to enlarge forcemajeure1.jpg

Early in Force Majeure, a young, good-looking family — father, mother, son and daughter — is having lunch at an outdoor restaurant of a ski resort in the French Alps. The vista, a gleaming and snow-packed mountain, is almost overwhelmingly spectacular.

A controlled explosion in the distance triggers an avalanche that commands the attention of the restaurant patrons, including the family we have been observing. Diners pull out their iPhones and record the wall of snow as it barrels down the mountain. The avalanche rumbles ever closer. Will it reach the diners? Panic erupts. Patrons scramble. Some of them scream; others run for their lives as a tremendous cloud of snow envelopes the patio.

The mother and father react differently to the chaos. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) grabs their children (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) and seeks cover. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the family’s husband-father, is not quite so instinctively protective.

But the avalanche, which is part of the ski resort’s regular maintenance on the slopes, quickly fizzles as a would-be disaster. The brief whiteout at the restaurant, it turns out, is essentially snow dust. Normalcy resumes, but shame and hurt are palpable in the awkward silence that consumes the family as they regroup at the table. The lives of these four will never be the same.

Like Force Majeure’s high altitudes and frosty climes, the scene is enough to cause vertigo. But it is that sense of being off stride — the potential dangers that arise from leaving comfort zones — that helps make this Swedish-language film so riveting. Force Majeure screens Thursday through Sunday at Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.

The almost-natural disaster spurs a disaster of the marital kind. Writer-director Ruben Östlund is less interested in standard melodrama than he is in more squirm-inducing possibilities, slapping this picture-perfect family onto a glass slide and placing it under a microscope for further inspection. Ebba is floored by her husband’s action at the restaurant, but her bewilderment becomes anger once it is clear that Tomas would rather revise history and downplay the matter altogether. The woman’s fury spills out over dinner with another couple she and Tomas have only just met. Östlund lets every excruciating moment unfold. His sensibility here reflects a marriage between Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm and the enfant terrible of filmmakers, Michael Haneke (Amour, The White Ribbon). In other words, laughs — and Force Majeure actually has some — come with a chaser of existential dread.

Caustic and bitterly insightful, the movie pokes perceptions of sacrifice, bravery and responsibility, teasing them through the filter of gender expectations. Östlund is particularly merciless on manliness. Tomas’ ostensible sin stings all the more because Ebba uses it to emasculate him. The self-doubts and recriminations they dredge up even infect another couple (Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius) with whom they are friends.

This dark comedy plays out amidst a landscape of breathtakingly snowcapped beauty. Set at the tony resort of Les Arcs and lovingly lensed by Fredrik Wenzel, Force Majeure boasts a crisp, uncluttered look unsurprising for filmmakers who hail from the same land that gave the world IKEA. But the similarities end there. The surface look might be sleek and orderly, but the emotional implications are anything but neat.

Print headline: Snowdrift, Set high in the French Alps, Force Majeure brilliantly depicts a marriage at a crossroads.

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Phil Bacharach

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