This slow-burning marriage drama starts out like a luxury travel-magazine ad for vacation porn. Healthy, lovely Swedish couple Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their healthy, lovely kids Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren) go on a ski holiday in the French Alps, where the snow is powder thick and gallery-wall white. After their first day of skiing, they all crash in nearly identical thermals in the big bed of their posh room. Östlund cuts these scenes with brief coverage shots of activity in and around the resort scored to an effervescent snippet of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” which feels like a champagne-bottle opening to convey the good life.Throughout, the occasional booms of controlled avalanches provide an irregular background noise to the trip—until the second ski day, when that sound accrues a quiet menace.
The family stops at a gorgeous mountaintop restaurant for a midday meal when one of the booms takes place within the breathtaking view. Everybody turns to watch the snow cascade down the slope, camera phones come out to capture it, but very soon it looks like this controlled activity has become uncontrollable. People panic. Ebba instinctively grabs her kids and squats down to protect them. Tomas acts instinctively too: He flees.
This “avalanche” was merely the nonthreatening spray kicked up by the snow, but Tomas and Ebba’s relationship is shaken to its foundation. Over the remainder of “Force Majeure’s” 118 minutes, Ebba tries to reconcile her view of the man she married with the one who abandoned his wife and kids, and they replay the incident in a series of increasingly unpleasant conversations. In each one, Ebba’s distress and Tomas’ cowardice—and increasingly futile efforts to disprove it—come into sharper relief, leading to Tomas selfishly bawling on the floor of their hotel room.
That’s one of many moments in the film that plays as bitter satire. Tomas, the man who behaved unmanly, keeps trying to rationalize to his wife, his kids, and himself that he didn’t behave so, leading to such an outlandish display of vulnerability that it becomes emotional blackmail demanding his wife and kids pity him.
In between these confrontations, Östlund stitches scenes of men doing so-called manly things: Tomas and a friend (Kristofer Hivju) taking a guy’s day skiing those remote runs that require additional hiking from the lift to reach, then grabbing drinks and eyeing women in the outdoor lounge; Tomas wandering into a group of shirtless young men drinking excessively and screaming at each other to drink more excessively in some kind of after-ski sweat lodge. These are offset by Tomas’ displays of complete interpersonal ineptness. Modern men: screaming and trying to prove their physical prowess one moment, bawling and revealing their emotional ignorance the next.
The movie would be spit-take hilarious if it weren’t so coldly honest, as Östlund shoots it with the dispassionate patience of an ethnographer. By the time Ebba can barely stand to look at Tomas, Östlund’s Vivaldi-scored coverage shots have become these time-marking signposts that trigger awkward laughter as you wait to see what new disgrace Tomas is going to get up to next. It’s such a committed portrayal of male insecurity that you end up feeling a little sorry for the guy, which gives the movie such a poignant undertow. Nobody really knows how he’s going to behave in a perceived life/death situation until one actually happens. Calmly uncomfortable and profoundly comic, “Force Majeure” is a scalpel-precise laser slicing right through the cremaster muscle of contemporary masculinity.