Force Majeure ✮✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
You’re invited on a winter outing with Ebba and Tomas and their two cherubic children. The family has booked five days at a swank mountaintop resort in the French Alps. But what starts out as a relaxing, much-needed getaway so daddy can “focus on the family” soon turns into the ski vacation from hell.
Don’t expect conventional thrills and spills, however. This is definitely not your father’s “Avalanche Express.” Rather, “Force Majeure” (in Swedish with English subtitles) is a very low-key, icily precise affair, and it’s all the more exhilarating and unsettling for it.
Directed and written by Sweden’s Ruben Östlund, this beautifully played and sustained melodrama traverses some of the same philosophical terrain as “The Loneliest Planet” and the Naomi Watts-Ewan McGregor disaster movie “The Impossible.” Indeed, it posits a moral quandary as old as Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim”: When the chips are down and lives would appear to be at stake, how would you respond? Would your natural inclination be to hightail-it and run, or would you stand your ground and yell, “Women and children first!”
With zero time to mull over the consequences, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) makes a decision he will live to regret. As he and his family lunch at an outdoor restaurant, they hear a boom and, like everyone else, assume it’s another of the resort’s controlled avalanches. But the wall of snow keeps getting closer … and closer. Suddenly everyone is in panic mode. Instead of shielding his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kingsli) and two children (Vincent and Clara Wettergren), Tomas lunges for his gloves and iPhone and sprints ahead.
As it turns out, the avalanche dies before it reaches the resort. The diners, dusted with powder, are safe.
To say that this incident puts a damper on the family vacation would be an understatement. Stewing, Ebba now sees her husband differently, and, though he protests that her version of things isn’t quite accurate, she can’t help thinking that the man she fell in love with is a coward.
Beautifully shot by Fredrik Wenzel ‒ you’d have to go back to David Lean’s “Doctor Zhivago” to find more spectacular snowscapes ‒ “Force Majeure” is a thinking person’s thriller, appropriately more Bergman-esque than Hitchcockian. It starts out chilly, remote, and becomes ever more intense as Ebba and Tomas’s at-first mutually agreed upon secret spills over to their children and others vacationing at the resort, including Tomas’s best friend (Kristofer Hivju) and his significantly younger girlfriend (Fanni Metelius).
And without resorting to the obvious denouement (redemption or suicide?), director Östlund works fascinating variations on Tomas’s fateful decision. But the question lingers: are these reactions to danger instinctual or are they informed by Tomas’s very public shame?
Add “Force Majeure” to the year’s short list of most intriguing offerings.
FORCE MAJEURE ✮✮✮1/2 With Johannes Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kingsli, Kristofer Hivju, Fanni Metelius. Directed, written by Ruben Östlund. 120 min. Rated R (but should be PG-13 for slight profanity, female nudity)