Right before the moment of decision in Force Majeure (Cannes Film Festival)

Right before the moment of decision in Force Majeure (Cannes Film Festival)

Written and Directed by Ruben Ostlund
Produced by Erik Hemmendorff, Marie Kjellson and Philippe Bober
Released by Magnolia Pictures
Swedish, with English subtitles
Sweden/France. 118 min. Rated R
With Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju and Fanni Metelius

yellowstar Films about vacations from hell typically fall into humorous, wacky adventures: think The Out-of-Towners or National Lampoon’s Vacation. Force Majeure, however, gets as far away from hilarious high jinks as possible, turning a mundane and commonplace ski trip into a journey that tests a family’s limits and threatens to reveal that their happiness is based on a frighteningly shaky foundation.

This dire description suggests a trip rife with carnage and peril, but it’s a brief, only seemingly dangerous situation that triggers the film’s events. While Swedish businessman Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and his family are vacationing in the French Alps, the patriarch’s mettle is tested—and, unfortunately, he is found wanting.

He, his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their children Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) have a meal at an outdoor restaurant. A sheet of snow advances toward them, due to a controlled avalanche that’s gotten out of control. Panic strikes among the guests, but when powder clears, revealing a false alarm, everyone relaxes, except Ebba, who realizes that Tomas has run off, abandoning his family to—what could have been—death and destruction. Though Tomas comes back and everyone returns to eating their meal, nothing will be the same.

Initially, no one in the family directly acknowledges the event, though Ebba giving Tomas the cold shoulder and mild tantrums on the part of the children illustrate quite clearly that there’s trouble in paradise. But Ebba doesn’t seem able to convey her turmoil one-on-one to her husband. Instead, she reassures him that everything’s fine, only to raise the issue when the couple publicly socializes with friends.

Though the landscape is the real star here (the cinematography is breathtaking), the actors deliver potent performances. Kongsli is particularly moving, showing true ambivalence. At times, she is genuine in her agreement with Tomas that they should move on and stop dredging up that moment of cowardice, while in other moments she demonstrates a mixture of anger and disgust toward her husband. Kuhnke is equally effective, letting a dull but amiable exterior give way to pain, doubt, even self-loathing.

Though a seemingly life or death situation is what sparks the film’s premise, it’s light on action, instead drawing strength from the rich human drama. Writer and director Ruben Ostlund revels in the mundane through incredibly long, motionless takes of the family sleeping in bed, brushing their teeth, or waiting to ski. The result is an authentic experience, fraught with tension, that meshes viewers entirely in the experience to an intentionally unpleasant degree—audiences will be longing to flee the discomfort and shame in which the film mires them.

The film’s sole misstep is a long, drawn-out scene in which Ebba airs the couple’s dirty laundry for an old family friend, divorced Mats (Kristofer Hivju), and his young twentysomething girlfriend, Fani (Fanni Metelius). The scenes are effective, and it’s intriguing to see Fani and Mats become caught up in the other couple’s drama, even after they leave Tomas and Ebba for the evening, perhaps mirroring viewers’ own responses. (Fani suggests that Mats is as prone to self-preservation as Tomas.) However, their following scene goes on a shade too long, threatening to steal focus from the main conflict.

Overall, though, an acutely ominous tone runs through the film. The booming sounds of the controlled avalanches, the night shots of white snow, the measured pacing: all add up to a movie that feels more horror than typical human drama. There’s a sense that this family is moving inexorably forward toward some horrific conclusion. Viewers may wish to look away but won’t be able to. The beautiful yet deadly environment plays an even bigger role here than mere scenery porn. It’s a constant reminder that even in the midst of civilization, we’re never too far from the threat of death—and, more than that, from discovering who we really are.

At first blush, Force Majeure couldn’t seem further from the recent Gone Girl (David Fincher’s frenetic, action-filled thriller seems to fly by, while Force Majeure, though deeply absorbing, is glacier paced), yet both films unpack marriage and ask viewers to ponder some uncomfortable ideas. Do we really know what makes our supposed soul mates tick?

The movie doesn’t provide any easy answers; there are no moral pronouncements, only questions, which may frustrate some but will ultimately engage others. Regardless, one imagines some difficult dialogues resulting. Like Fani and Mats, some audience members may find themselves in for a long night after they leave Tomas and Ebba behind.