Near the beginning of Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s devastatingly powerful Force Majeure, his country’s official Oscar entry, an avalanche at a French ski resort nearly takes out a balcony filled with diners at the lodge’s restaurant.
But that’s not the disaster Östlund is concerned with; it’s merely the trigger that exposes the fault lines in a couple’s fragile relationship. Johannes Kuhnke is Tomas, a seemingly successful Swedish father on vacation with his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two cherubic children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren).
From a distance, they are the perfect family, good-looking, financially secure, able to spend several days worry-free in an idyllic location. But there are signs of stormy churn beneath the placid surface.
The kids have a whiff of privileged brattiness about them, and there’s an iciness between Tomas and Ebba, a distance masked by pleasantries. But the fissures grow wider after the avalanche, when Ebba claims that Tomas, instead of staying with his family at the table, ran off in a fit of self-preservation, leaving them to fend for themselves.
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He disputes her version of events, but she is insistent — especially in front of others. The essence of his manhood is called into question and the incident begins to work as a corrosive agent in their marriage, breaking down the soft tissue of normalcy.
The toxicity splashes onto the children, who begin to think their parents are headed for divorce, and their friends, who begin to question their own emotional assumptions. There’s a scene where Tomas breaks down in front of the family that is absolutely haunting.
Östlund works in the great tradition of gloomy Scandinavian relationship dramas — think Ingmar Bergman — and it is very European in its sensibility. Slow and, especially in the beginning, sometimes even prosaic, Force Majeure uses very ordinary moments as building blocks for something tense and unnerving.
Ultimately, the internal avalanches turn out to be far more destructive than the one on the mountain.
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* * * * (out of five)
Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli
Rated: R (strong language, brief nudity)
Running time: 118 min.