Gleefully uncomfortable, deliciously awkward, and corrosively funny, Force Majeure is a comedy of passive aggressiveness with a nerve-cinching grip, delivered with Kubrickian unease. Plotted with forensic exactitude, it’s a quiet avalanche that leaves the audience squirming in all the best ways.
A family takes a 5-day ski holiday in the French Alps. During lunch at a mountainside restaurant, an avalanche turns everything upside down. The anticipated disaster fails to occur, but in the aftermath, the quartet is torn apart by cowardice as their dynamic is shaken to its core. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), the family’s patriarch, struggles desperately to reclaim his role as family patriarch, but mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) refuses to let him off the hook.
Mightily clever in its rather theatrical structure and bracingly cinematic in its formal approach, Force Majeure is a prickly moral comedy for grown-ups, full of spectacular scenery, sharply observed moments, and masterfully manipulated atmosphere. An arrangement of the stormy Summer finale from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons keeps the viewer in jittery anticipation, adding caustic condemnation through ice-cold humour.
Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund (Involuntary, Play) is a gifted creator of malignant ambience, a glacial and ever-more-confident stylist, and a brutal satirist of his countrymen’s foibles, presumptions, and hidden prejudices. Like Bergman with a wicked streak, Östlund never pushes his own metaphors too far. In Tomas, Östlund diagnoses traits of stunted male egotism and whopping immaturity, matched with a warped desire to look like a hero; Ebba, meanwhile, is far from blame-free, especially in agreeing to present a “united front” to their children.
Expertly directed and frequently hilarious, Force Majeure is a sophisticated thought experiment, provocative and wise, exploring the consequences of male weakness in a world in which men are expected to be strong at all times. Each new wrinkle in the scenario makes you squirm and recognize some rarely-broached truth. It’s a penetrating study of that most ludicrous of social pretences – masculinity, toxic and ubiquitous – with secret reserves of compassion once you’ve peeped out from between your fingers.
Building riotously via a series of verbal maligning as male authority goes limp in the wake of a regrettable impulse, the film becomes a viciously amusing takedown of bourgeoisie complacency and gender stereotypes, chronicling the emotional free fall that occurs when a man and his marriage can’t live up to impossible expectations. A testy, laugh-as-you-wince experience that makes you murmur in amazement as you brood on the darkest corners in our lives, it rubs your face in human frailty and the illusion of security as relentlessly as anything in Michael Haneke’s oeuvre.
Östlund skips a perfect ending to reach an ambiguous final act that’s not as neatly satisfying, and it’s not as unflinching as 2010 chart-topper Blue Valentine. Yet despite the chilly setting and snowy veneers, it has a heart that burns wickedly, airing out the dirty laundry for all to see. Indeed, it’s the harshest date movie to come out of the European arthouse circuit since Charlotte Gainsbourg stuck a pair of rusty scissors between her legs. (Maybe watch it alone, though for the record, I’d die for you, baby.)
While we may still be waiting for a new Bergman, his native country has ne’er slowed down: two of his colleagues have arrived at third-time’s-the-charm efforts during the 2013-2014 festival season – Lukas Moodyson’s adorably optimistic ode to teenage punk stunned Toronto last year; and Roy Andersson’s incomparable black comedy won the Golden Lion at Venice. Now Östlund himself looks to be in serious contention for a Foreign Language Film nomination. Fifty-seven years after Death sat down to a chess match with a young Max von Sidow, the Swedes are pulling their weight.