In Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s latest film, Tomas and Ebba (Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli) take their two children on a five-day ski vacation in the French Alps. During the movie’s endearing opening sequence, we watch as a benignly pushy resort-employed photographer shoots the family in a variety of amusing poses—arranged by height, touching helmets—all of which do something, tempering the fun and humor of the scene, to suggest the forced nature of this choreography, these arrangements: they are poses, pretty images of familial bliss, nothing more.
But in true Scandinavian fashion the tension remains understated for much of the film. Indirect: “We’re here because Tomas has been working so much,” Ebba tells a fellow traveler in the hotel lobby. “So now he has five days to focus on his family.” Offstage: Having left the bedroom after a family nap, unseen from the bathroom Ebba asks Tomas if he’s checking his work phone; no, he lies. The only real talk of divorce comes from Harry, the son: “I don’t want you to break up!”
Because it finds its characters so unwilling to tackle their problems head-on, the movie turns to an ingenious mechanism to reroute the tension, bringing not only it—but also the characters’ apparently deeper, more fundamental problems—to light. This mechanism is, of course, the eponymous force majeure: an avalanche. But again, it’s not the avalanche’s literal and physical “force” itself that pushes the narrative on, only the markedly different and supposedly revealing ways in which Tomas and Ebba react to it. Lunching on a deck overlooking the mountainside, the family, along with other restaurant patrons, watch as a controlled avalanche continues to build, speeding towards them. After some murmured debate about the actual danger of the situation, panic descends and the diners begin a dash to safety. But the actual peril amounts to nothing more than a dense fog of powder, and within minutes service is resumed on the deck. But in the chaos and confusion, Tomas makes the decision that will pursue him for the rest of the film: while Ebba sees to the protection of the children, Tomas grabs his cell phone and makes a run for it.
The avalanche scene is more than a crucial turning point. It also appealingly replicates the film’s global structure in the span of a single long take: necessary maintenance falls prey to its own built-in potential for disaster. Tomas’s five-day break from his job is meant to help ensure the everyday health of the family, but somehow even obliquely admitting to the problem is enough to open it up.
Yet the avalanche scene is more than either a plot device or a handy metaphor. It also captures what works so well in Force Majeure: its stylistic mastery and irresistible authority. In general the cinematography favors patient, stationary shots—just the kind that allows the avalanche scene to unfold moment by moment from the unassuming vantage point in a corner of the restaurant deck. A more predictable artistic vision might have relied on close-ups and quick editing to convey the mayhem of the moment. Instead Östlund simply waits, solid and immobile as a rock, letting the characters adapt organically to the scene’s marvelous instability. He waits as the powder whites the entire frame out, waits as it gradually dissipates and order haltingly resumes.
In fact, the director’s sure hand is felt everywhere in the film, less as a narrative-dream-disrupting willfulness than as a trustworthy guiding “force.” Take, for example, the sweeping nighttime Alpine vistas, recalling Wes Anderson; the highly dramatic stop-and-start phrases from Vivaldi’s “Summer,” pumped out on accordion, that punctuate the film; or the not-quite-implausible ending sequence, in which a busload of travelers abandon their dangerously incompetent driver to walk the rest of the way down the ribbony, switchbacking mountain road.
On the level of plot, Tomas’s general unraveling in the aftermath of his behavior on the restaurant deck is another of Östlund’s wonderfully bold decisions. Here the director spins his story with the help of impressively little narrative material: the film chews its turning point scene over and over, first as Ebba and Tomas argue—passive aggressively, in front of another resort couple—about what even happened. Ebba is disturbed by how easily and instinctively Tomas abandons her and the children, but his “interpretation” of the scene differs, without truly emerging from vague denial. Later the discussion resurfaces as Tomas and Ebba spend an evening in their hotel room with one of Tomas’s old friends and his young girlfriend. Finally, later in the movie, Tomas breaks down in gloriously histrionic sobs. One of my favorite scenes follows, as Tomas’s shirtless, prostrate hysteria awakens the children, who climb on his back, screaming through their tears, “Daddy! Daddy!”
At the end of the day, however, the confidence of Force Majeure’s brilliant surfaces may distract us from the fact that its core is regrettably conventional, buying into harmful clichés about gender norms and family values. Not only in the set-up of the conflict: the distant, workaholic husband vs. the emotionally needy, stay-at-home mother. But also the way that the turning point avalanche scene, rather than confounding this tired binary, actually cements it, proving that Tomas’s “true nature” aligns perfectly with the role his society has written for him. Likewise Ebba’s. This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t at least purport to challenge gender convention: we meet a notably horny woman in an open relationship and a couple with an age gap. But these afterthoughts don’t compete with the “major force” of the main conflict. So what this means is that ultimately we are watching a movie about a wealthy white man’s pain at being proven a selfish bastard. And isn’t that just the kind of problem from which we ourselves could use a five-day ski vacation?