By Claudia Puig/Gannett News Service
Meticulous and deliberately paced, “Force Majeure” unexpectedly hits the viewer like an emotional avalanche.
A compelling and droll drama, it raises provocative emotional issues as it traffics in murky marital ground. The winner of a jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, this Swedish film (with English subtitles) is both weighty and wickedly funny.
The setting is the French Alps, where a privileged, picture-perfect family goes to vacation. The intent is for strapping businessman Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) to unwind with some invigorating skiing and spend quality time on the slopes with his stunning wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two blond children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren).
Early on, the striking foursome pose for a family photo in ski gear, looking enviably happy and healthy. But this snapshot merely serves as irony as the story unfolds.
Mother, father, daughter and son initially make their way to and from a sterile-looking resort to the snowy Alps, without much fuss or conversation.
But one sunny afternoon, while they’re having lunch outdoors at a mountainside restaurant, relishing the gorgeous view, a thunderous boom signals an avalanche. At first, Tomas thinks it’s something controlled and whips out his smartphone to take a picture. Then, panic strikes. Diners scurry and scramble, as Ebba instinctively grabs and protects her children — while Tomas flees. No one is hurt and their vacation resumes.
The rest of their days are far from idyllic. Over the film’s course, we see family ties grow strained and start to unravel. Ebba grows increasingly distraught, Tomas loses confidence. Others are drawn into the couple’s arguments. Did Tomas’ reaction signal a serious character flaw, underlying weakness or just momentary agitation?
Tomas struggles to slip back into the role of family patriarch, but his faith in himself is shaken.
Director Ruben Ostlund takes a near-catastrophe and examines it under a microscope in riveting and often hilarious fashion. What seemed like a contented, tight-knit family, when observed more closely, is anything but.
It’s a domestic thriller — set in a spectacular location — that is both subtle and deeply probing. Viewers will likely move to take sides in this marital conflict. What exactly comprises bravery and family commitment? How revealing are split-second decisions in the total scheme of one’s life?
This Scandinavian drama/dark comedy is plotted with a precision that draws the audience in powerfully. Nerves will be rattled by the explosive nightly rounds of controlled avalanches. The story explores relationships insightfully, and offers much-needed humor just when the tension becomes almost too difficult to bear.
“Force Majeure” reveals the sometimes fragile strands that weave together an image of masculine strength, explores the process of losing faith in a partner and posits a “what-if” scenario that is thoroughly captivating.
Magnolia Pictures presents a film written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. In Swedish with English subtitles. Running time: 118 minutes. Rated R (for some language and brief nudity). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.