“Force Majeure” screens Wednesday, Nov. 12 at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art as part of its Spotlight Cinema Series. 1:59, R, three stars out of four.
Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” is basically the feature film version of that “Seinfeld” episode where George is at the birthday party where there’s a small fire, and he pushes old ladies and children out of the way stampeding to the exit. Only it’s Swedish, it takes place at a ski resort, and is several degrees creepier.
They seem like the perfect family. Handsome businessman Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke, who has a Stephen Dorff kind of thing going on), his beautiful wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two adorable kids Harry and Vera (real-life siblings Vincent and Clara Wettergren). They’re rich enough to spend a five-day vacation at a luxury ski resort in the breathtakingly beautiful French Alps.
Until, one day over lunch on the restaurant deck, the family looks out to see one of the controlled avalanches the resort sets off from time to time. Except this one doesn’t seem so controlled, and a wall of white starts rushing towards the restaurant. Tomas rushes off in terror, leaving his wife and children behind — but grabbing his phone and gloves.
It all turns out to be a false alarm, but the damage has been done, like a tiny fissure within the nuclear family that begins to widen. Rather than spark an immediate confrontation between Tomas and Ebba over his cowardice, Ostlund lets the tension simmer deliciously for most of “Force Majeure.” Tomas takes the absolute worst route to dealing with the cowardly elephant in the room — first, he denies it every happened, then he rationalizes, finally he throws himself sobbing on the mercy of Ebba.
It’s Ebba who is really the one to watch, as she processes what she now knows about her husband and how she is going to deal with the fracture between them. Kongsli is a marvelously subtle actress, and some of the most potent scenes in “Force Majeure” are just of her gazing at her husband, making us wonder what she’s thinking.
Ostlund is content to make the audience feel uneasy during these long silences, punctuated by moments of bleak comedy (as when another couple intervenes to make peace, and instead becomes infected by the same doubt). Ostlund also uses sudden, jarring sound cues and offbeat framing (his use of widescreen is superb) to keep us off balance, and interludes featuring shots of the majestic Alps, the cannons of the controlled avalanche detonators booming in the night, symbolizing the slow-motion detonation of Tomas and Ebba’s marriage.
Eventually, “Force Majeure” started to wear on my patience a little — hey, “Seinfeld” wrapped up this same story in 22 minutes, and another film, “The Loneliest Planet,” explored similar terrain with more psychological depth (and that couple never even spoke about it!)
But I appreciate the restraint with which Ostlund slowly applies the screws on the family, and “Force Majeure” takes an unexpected turn in its last 20 minutes that has more resonance, broadening its tale of one unhappy family to look at all families, and how they deal with threats from without and within. One thing’s for sure — any father who sees “Force Majeure” will stay rooted to their seat the next time an avalanche is coming their way. The alternative is more painful than annihilation.