On numerous occasions throughout Ruben Ostland's Force Majeure, we hear a sudden, startling blast of music: an accordion performance of “Summer: III - Presto” from Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. It's an ominous, familiar classical selection which feels more like a prelude to an intense arthouse thriller than to a relationship drama, but that seems appropriate in this case: Force Majeure is a relationship drama which ultimately plays like an intense arthouse thriller; like Scenes from a Marriage as directed by Michael Haneke. It doesn't quite reach the level of mastery that description suggests, but there are more than a few moments when it comes close.
Our story focuses on a wealthy Swedish family enjoying a five-day vacation at a luxury ski resort in the French Alps. Well, “enjoying” is something of an overstatement. Family patriarch Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) finds himself agitated by the thought of spending so much time disconnected from the outside world, his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is agitated by Tomas' agitation and the two kids seem alternately bored and irritated (losing themselves in digital devices at every opportunity). It's evident that seeds of discord lurk beneath the surface, but that's where they stay... for a little while, anyway.
Then, it happens: the family is eating lunch on an outdoor patio, when they suddenly witness an avalanche occurring nearby. Tomas assures everyone that it's controlled by the ski resort staff and that there's no need to worry, but as the avalanche gets closer and closer, people begin to panic. Tomas panics, too, abandoning his family and fleeing in a moment of fear. The dust (well, snow) settles, and everyone realizes that they were never really in any danger. Even so, the damage has been done: Tomas has violated Ebba's trust.
Ebba laughs it off, at first. Tomas recounts the story to a couple of fellow vacationers, but excludes the part about his cowardice. Ebba re-inserts it, cruelly chuckling about Tomas' fearfulness as she does so. Tomas, nursing his wounded pride, insists that he actually didn't run away. The two argue about it in front of their new friends, and then continue arguing about as the days pass. Tomas grows increasingly defensive about his actions, while Ebba grows increasingly obsessed with getting her husband to admit what he did. It's enough to make anyone who's been in a long-term relationship squirm, as it oh-so-precisely captures the way that little disagreements can turn into strange, bitter, disproportionate rifts.
There's both darkly observant comedy and stomach-churning drama to be found within Force Majeure (with an emphasis on the former), and Ostland does an impressive job of permitting the tension to build organically for much of the film's running time. Midway through, Tomas' old pal Mats (Kristofer Hivju, Game of Thrones) and his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) hear yet another version of the story and attempt to offer something resembling marriage counseling. Their efforts don't quite produce the desired result, but do lead to a strange, hypnotizing stretch in which Tomas (feeling sadly, hilariously emasculated by the whole ordeal) joins Mats on a quest to rekindle his inner frat bro as the intimate relationship drama morphs into something resembling a battle of the sexes.
This is a fascinating film on a visual level, observing its players with an almost Kubrickian sterility. There are a lot of long, insinuating takes, and the deliberately soothing visual design of the ski resort contrasts sharply with the jagged emotions contained within its walls. There are fleeting, potent bursts of stylish energy, particularly a party scene which functions as one of the low point's on Tomas' journey of attempted self-discovery/denial. Through it all, Vivaldi returns again and again, those furious, familiar strains of “Summer” offering playfully jarring accompaniment to the wintry landscape and frosty relationships.
Ostland walks a fine tonal line throughout the film, finding room for shades of both genuine empathy and biting satire within his portrait of this family. These people aren't likable in a traditional sense – the kids in particular are spoiled brats who have no idea how comfortable their life is – but Ostland grants everyone humanity even as he underlines the pathetic absurdity of their behavior. There's an emotionally-charged scene in the third act which somehow manages to be sad, funny and savage all at once, leaving the viewer (or at least this viewer) with something resembling nervous, fascinated discomfort.
Force Majeure kind of lost me after that point, delivering a couple of metaphorically-charged scenes which may or may not be intended as an even deeper layer of ironic satire. They struck me less as essential parts of the puzzle than as slightly indecisive attempts at summarization. Your mileage may vary. However, the bulk of the film is compelling, provocative stuff. It's not as unflinchingly gripping as Richard Linklater's Before Midnight, as wickedly chilly as Haneke or as deeply empathetic as Bergman, but it's punching in the same weight class.
The film's title is a legal term which refers to a “chance occurrence or unavoidable accident.” As a result, one might think that it refers to the avalanche, but I don't think that's correct. The term generally used to describe a natural event like a storm, flood, earthquake or avalanche is “act of God.” “Force majeure” is a broader term, and often refers to unavoidable occurrences or accidents initiated by humans. The troubling impulses that afflict this marriage lurk within all of us, and it doesn't usually require an avalanche to bring them to the surface.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 120 minutes
Release Year: 2014