The tense Swedish drama Force Majeure has me happily reaching for comparisons to great works, both classic and recent. The dueling recollections of a traumatic event bring to mind Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The unflinching, nearly nonjudgmental portrait of a family in crisis recalls Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing domestic sagas. The variable and occasionally jarring point-of-view shots? Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. The surprising story turns, captivating visuals, and confident sense of place? The most recent Foreign Language Oscar winner, The Great Beauty.
Director and screenplay writer Ruben Ostlund starts things off cleverly, with a literal image of picture-perfect domesticity. Force Majeure opens with a lovely Swedish family holding each other closely for a series of photos on a French Alpine mountainside. Ironically, this family’s self-image of cohesion and loyalty will soon be severely tested.
The ski holiday commences nicely enough for Tomas, Ebba, and their two children, despite some mild acting out by Harry (their youngest) at the end of the first day. On their second day, however, their lunch on an outdoor terrace is disrupted when a “controlled avalanche” brings a torrent of snow rumbling distressingly close to the tables. In the sudden panic, Tomas joins a fleeing group, leaving Ebba to huddle by their table with the children.
Fortunately, the avalanche was utterly harmless, and the puff of snow that reached the tables quickly dissipates. Understandably, though, Tomas’ abandonment of his family has inflicted psychological harm, which he compounds by his denial that any wrong was done. First, the children Vera and Harry become withdrawn and sullen. Soon after, it emerges that Ebba is deeply shaken, both by the traumatic event and her husband’s selective amnesia.
Although Force Majeure is only Ruben Ostlund’s fourth feature film, already he displays a remarkable command of the medium. Force Majeure is structured as a five act play, with each act a day of the family’s vacation. Each day is demarcated by an intertitle (“Day One,” etc.) and bracketed by imagery of the mountains or ski lodge.
Ostlund restricts external music to these brief periods between acts, always a snippet of “Winter” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. With this near-absence of a film score, we get to hear so much more in its place: the sporadic cannons that sonically dislodge snow for the trails, the rhythmic clang of the ski lift, the clatter of electric toothbrushes, the creak of the lodge’s wooden flooring.
This naturalistic soundtrack effectively raises our tension level, as does the paradox of narrative unpredictability contained within a familiar five-act structure. We know when this trip will end, but we have no idea how we’ll get there, nor what the condition of this family will be by the conclusion. The sounds and images around the lodge portend danger, as do the relational tensions within the lodge.The characters and choices of Tomas and Ebba are etched more deeply by the parallels and differences between them and a couple of other tourists visiting from Sweden. Like Ebba, Charlotte is also a married mother, but is vacationing without her husband and children. Charlotte’s open marriage and apparent free-spiritedness lead Ebba to question the weight she places on her roles as devoted mother and wife.
For comparison to Tomas, we encounter a similarly aged father named Mats. It’s made obvious that these two men know each other, but compounding our disequilibrium, we’re never told how this pair is connected. Are they brothers? Longtime friends?
Mats offers a welcome dose of comic relief, too. With his long ruddy beard, expressive face, and much younger partner, he comes across as a bit clownish. Yet (in another of the film’s paradoxes), he also offers significant food for thought. On hearing of Tomas’ flight from the controlled avalanche, Mats becomes a half-decent armchair psychologist and practical philosopher. Serving as a surrogate for our own speculations, Mats postulates that Tomas may have been merely acting on his survival instinct and thus shouldn’t be judged too harshly. Moreover, Mats prompts us to doubt our own heroism, had we been deposited in a similar situation.
To add further plaudits to Force Majeure, the acting by all of the principals is topnotch. Worth singling out are Lisa Loven Kongsli as Ebba, and real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettegren as Vera and Harry. Kongsli’s emotions convincingly run the gamut from cheery to traumatically unnerved to distraught. As far as the two child actors, it would take a stonier heart than mine to stay unmoved by Vera and Harry’s tears, as they huddle together fearfully during their parents’ disputations.
Force Majeure’s sole notable shortcoming is its climax, which threatens to offer an overly neat symmetry to this tale. Thankfully, director Ostlund resists fully giving in to this temptation and redeems himself with a denouement that manages to be shocking, suspenseful, strange, comedic, and pretty much perfect.
(Parents’ guide: Force Majeure is appropriately rated R, given its intense situations, occasional language, and brief nudity. I’d steer younger teens away from this film.)