Force Majeure

For the type of film it is, Force Majeure (the new film from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund) features a ton of explosions. These are not metaphorical domestic explosions (though is has its fair share of those), nor are they Michael Bay inspired destruction porn. The explosions of Force Majeure are a constant disruptive presence, puncturing the silence of a film that is predominantly free of music. They are not random, though they can sometimes seem to be, and they remain distressingly disquieting throughout the complete length of the film.

Those explosions serve as a backdrop for the holiday of Tomas (Johannes Kunke) and his family, wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), son Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren). They have stolen away to the French Alps for six days of skiing and relaxation. After an idyllic first day on the slopes, replete with family photos and lovely vistas, the vacation takes a bit of a turn during lunch on the second day. The telltale explosions, designed to create controlled mini-avalanches that reset the snow on the slopes and prevent larger snow catastrophes, appear to create a real avalanche that puts the family in danger. As Ebba corrals the children to safety, Tomas runs for safety, leaving them behind. What’s worse, he thoroughly denies any wrongdoing when confronted by his wife. The tension continues to build over the rest of the vacation, even affecting the relationship of their friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju), who arrives halfway through the trip.

The slow burn of the second act of Force Majeure requires a very specific wavelength to enjoy. Too much melodrama could disrupt the delicate balance between comedy and drama and tip the film over into the maudlin. It is key, then, for both director and actors alike to be unified in their thematic pursuits. IT is a small scale film from a setting and cast perspective, and everyone to a man (and woman) hits the perfect note they need to, allowing the film to succeed in its tightrope walk. This allows Force Majeure to hone its focus on its central conceit of the intersection of cowardice and male bravado and how it can tear apart a family. Kunke’s Tomas is the keystone for all of this, and he is certainly up to the task. His mix of pig ignorance and thorough denial is infuriating to behold, but of course this is the point. Hivju (who is likely best known to Americans for his role as one of the Wildlings on Game of Thrones) teaches a masterclass on bemused awkward reactions as he finds himself in the middle of a heated domestic dispute involving his best friend. Loven Kongsli’s Ebba is a paragon of internal anguish, doing her best to put on a happy face for her children despite her husband’s betrayal. It is an excellent cast, one that provides exactly what is needed for Ostlund to make his point and entertain the audience at the same time.

Silence plays a foundational role in the French Alps. Music is used sparingly, only to mark the end of each night with bombast, and in the daylight hours nothing distracts from the elements. All that remains is the scrape of snow and ice beneath skis, the howling wind. Force Majeure is a film that always retains that lingering sense of being unsettled. Mechanics encroach on nature, with cables clanging and banging their way through ski lifts and conveyer belts. The erosion of Tomas and Ebba’s relationship is equally disruptive to the idyl, as charged arguments in hushed tones boil over into screaming matches, disturbing the other vacationers in the hotel and on the slopes. These arguments slice through the silence just like the explosions on the mountain, creating their own little avalanches of domestic strife.

All of the aesthetic choices, the visuals, the music and lack thereof, the acting, are in service of Ostlund’s systemic destruction of the male ego and societal pressures and expectations surrounding it. Tomas’ refusal to own up to his own shortcomings for so much of the film despite the clear damage it is doing to his wife and children is at the heart of everything, and it reverberates through every aspect. It leads directly into the exceedingly clever and satisfying final two scenes that wonderfully subvert expectations, and it allows for the film to take advantage of a sophisticated performance from its male lead. Force Majeure is a quiet film in many ways, and a shatteringly loud one in others. It makes its point with conviction, deftly melding comedy and drama to engage and disarm. It is incisive and beautiful, and not the sort of experience to be missed.