The turning point in Force Majeure occurs about a quarter hour in and takes only a handful of seconds to happen. It’s an example of that old adage: life can change in an instant. Here, we’re not talking about death, an earthquake, a terminal diagnosis. Instead, writer-director Ruben Östlund’s film addresses a less tangible but equally deep disturbance to expectations — of the social and gender roles by which you, he, she, they and we live out our lives.
Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli play Tomas and Ebba, a sleek, young, upper-middle-class Swedish couple vacationing in the Alps with their two young kids. Östlund sets up their holiday as a countdown. “SKI DAY 1,” reads an onscreen legend. Ominously, it’s a demarcation device similar to the one Stanley Kubrick used in his snowy horror meltdown, The Shining.
Force Majeure isn’t a horror movie, not exactly. It’s not a straightforward drama either. Working with cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel, Östlund frames it like a chilly mix of sci-fi flick and sociological documentary. The family members access the slopes via lonely mechanized lifts and return to their lodge through a tunnel structure that, if it weren’t made of blond wood, would recall the womblike passages from the Alien films. Their ski resort, glittering darkly at night, resembles a landing strip for extraterrestrials. There is something both futuristic and deeply elemental and ancient at work, even before it happens . . .
As for it . . . As the family lunches on an outdoor restaurant deck overhanging the Alpine valley, a controlled, detonated avalanche begins on the slope across the way. Then chaos, not as controlled as that avalanche, ensues. If you don’t know already what happens in this Cannes Film Festival winner, you can look online and find out easily enough. Doesn’t matter if you do or don’t. What follows is what distinguishes the film, the ripples of discomfort.
Things get talky — and not talky, which is the point. Tomas and Ebba need to discuss what occurred during that lunch. But they’re stuck at a two-person impasse.
“It’s so weird that you won’t admit what happened,” she says to him.
“Admit,” with its connotations of blame and confession, is the problematic word here. His response: “I can’t relate to your description [of what happened].”
Tomas can’t, doesn’t, want to talk about it. So Ebba does, in a scene that’s both necessary to her and deeply unsettling for everyone around her. She unloads her side of the story at dinner to their friends — shaggy divorcee Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his much younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius). It’s a tipsy j’accuse. And like a virus, the issue transfers to Mats and Fanny after dinner. In bed, in fact. They stay up talking about what-ifs. How would the two of them behave in a similar situation? The irony is that the conversation they have, about something that didn’t happen to them, is the one Tomas and Ebba, to whom it did, should be having.
Peppered with some small homages to other European filmmakers (I checklisted Krzysztof Kieslowski and Luis Buñuel), Force Majeure asks what a man is or, rather, how a man is expected to behave. It questions what is authentic, and what is performance, and what is at stake when the mask of masculinity slips — for the mask-wearer and for everyone around him.
There are no easy answers here, but over a longish running time Östlund manages to sustain his thesis question with digressions into dark comedy and emotional explosions as big as the ones that send snow crashing into the valleys below.
Force Majeure. With Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. Rated R. In Swedish and English, with subtitles. 118 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.