A random incident at a French ski resort tears a Swedish family apart during their holiday in Force Majeure, writer-director Ruben Ostlund's drama-with-a-comic-bite.
It opens with the resort photographer bullshitting Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children about what a lovely family they are. And on day one, they do seem perfect — affluent Nordic super-people. But on the second day, their lunch is interrupted by an avalanche. Though nobody is hurt, Tomas' instinctual reaction — he runs away, as his young children scream for him — sends disastrous psychological ripples through the family.
The film takes its title from a legal term, defining a period in which unexpected events can temporarily free parties from certain contractual obligations. Here, it's the avalanche that "frees" Tomas and Ebba from their prescribed gender roles. (The set-up is also re-enacted in the film's coda, with different players.) What follows for the couple is a painful rending and re-ordering, particularly in regard to masculinity and motherhood, while their expensive ski holiday continues to unfold.
Like a virulent mold, the anger and distrust spreads outward, infecting the children, other guests and old friends. Being well-educated and moderately self-actualized, much of their fighting indulges modern psychobabble: Ebba claims to be "still under the influence" of the avalanche episode, and Tomas peevishly defends his version of events ("I can't ‘admit' to your perception").
Ostlund intercuts the family narrative with footage of the ski slope's maintenance — such as snow-making tubes and chair lifts — complete with the mechanical whirrs and clanks they generate in the alpine silence. The mountain is an empty, cold world, made safe and attractive by machinery. But danger is always present, as underscored by the muffled booms from the controlled avalanches, barely-heard warnings of something terrible potentially approaching.
The material alternates between beautiful to look at and cringe-y to sit through. Ostlund lays on the foreshadowing — another creak of the gondola, a too-pristine slope, an empty hallway — and thus a fair amount of dread lurks beneath the sunny surface. But if you can bear the discomfort and the film's deliberate pacing, there is also sly humor to be found. (It's a bit like opening an Ikea catalog to find, to your satisfaction, passive-aggressive psychodrama oozing out from the too-perfect scenes of sleek European furnishing.)
Over the course of the film, Ostylund removes both the couple's expensive ski togs and their carefully calibrated exteriors — they fight meanly, clad only in tiny underpants — until each is revealed to be shallow, petty and insular. They are a perfect modern family, but like the ski mountain, maintained only through constant artificial grooming and a casual disregard of ever-present dangers.