A Swedish family begins a five day vacation at the Les Arcs ski resort in the French Alps as a way for businessman father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, "Inheritance") to reconnect with his family. But on the second day, a controlled avalanche terrifies the outdoor patio lunch crowd and Tomas grabs his phone and bolts. No one's hurt, but Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is shaken to her core that her husband left her and their two children. Rather than reconnecting, Tomas will spend the remainder of the trip trying to grapple with a "Force Majeure."
Writer/director Ruben Östlund's chilly, black comedy looks at how primal fear upends the expected roles of men and women. Using a jarring sound design and artfully constructed space to keep us on edge, Östlund makes even the every day, like brushing one's teeth, unsettling.
We first meet the family being directed by a photographer so that they will appear to be a loving, cohesive group, but although we will also view them tossed together on a hotel bed, they're usually sighted singly filing down corridors - from the slopes, towards their room. (Other configurations will include isolated peeing by son and mother or each parent in charge of the children as the other seeks 'alone' time.) Scene changes are announced with blasts of Vivaldi or the sound of the explosions used to even out the slopes.
Once the avalanche has passed, Tomas tries to act like everything's normal. Ebba does not speak. Upon returning to their room, the children reject their parents, demanding to be left alone. The parents indulge them laughing. Later, the family pilots a quadcopter outside their hotel window, reestablishing control. But at dinner with other hotel guests (Malin Dahl and "Martha Marcy May Marlene's" Brady Corbet), Ebba tells the tale of how her husband reacted to the earlier scare. Tomas flatly denies it, suggesting she's drunk too much wine. The buzz of their electric toothbrushes, more exterior booms and the beeping of an alarm clock build like an escalating argument.
Ebba becomes more aggressive, stating that she wants to ski alone, then having an audible phone conversation with the woman from the night before about the benefits of open marriage. Another couple, Mats (Kristofer Hivju, "The Thing") and Fanni (Fanni Metelius), join them for dinner and once again, Ebba begins to speak about Tomas's cowardice in crisis. This time, Tomas is faced with the video that continued to record on his phone and must admit what he did, leading to an embarrassing breakdown in the hotel's atrium corridor. The next day, it's his turn to go solo, but he teams up with Mats, who's bent over backwards to rationalize his actions. They engage in some mountainside primal scream therapy, but when they return to the resort, they have their egos mangled by flirtatious female guests.
Östlund continues to work his themes via drunken male partiers and the restoration of Tomas's place as family protector in an incident that may have been engineered by Ebba, but another event that encompasses an entire busload of departing tourists is open to interpretation (my guess is that men and women will come away with different conclusions). The film's central theme has been posited before, perhaps more powerfully, certainly more subtlety in Julia Loktev's 2011 "The Loneliest Planet," but Östlund's film is more entertaining. The film's visual design serves its subject, but although the sound contributes, its aggressive nature can overwhelm.
"Force Majeure" is Sweden's submission for the 2014 Foreign Language Oscar. Östlund is a bold filmmaker who uses his tools to provoke both thought and laughter.
Robin also gives "Force Majeure" a B+.
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