You may never take the family on a ski trip again after watching Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s icily satiric study of a family’s breakdown after a near-disastrous avalanche.
By Peter Keough
Force Majeure, directed and written by Ruben Östlund. Begins screening at the Coolidge Corner Theatre, Brookline, MA, on November 14.
Has there ever been a film set in a ski resort that hasn’t involved betrayal, tragedy, and dread? From Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Spellbound (1945) to Luis Bunuel’s Belle de jour (1967) to Frozen (the 2010 horror film, not the recent animated hit), these films serve up more angst than après-ski apertifs.
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure follows in this cinematic tradition. A black comic inversion of the tsunami family survival story in The Impossible, it combines acute observations about gender roles and family relationships with a sardonic wit and gleefully surreal imagery. It depicts with excruciating authenticity the hell of a vacation gone horribly wrong. And it does so to a neurotic fault, as its repetition of an unresolvable, gnawing squabble comes close to committing the imitative fallacy.
Divided into a chapter for each of the five days the family is on holiday, the film begins with our wholesome vacationers having their picture taken upon their arrival at a huge, soulless ski lodge nestled in the French Alps. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two kids ski downhill, whooping in glee. Then they go back to their room and crash in exhaustion in the king-sized bed in their suite, dressed in identical blue long johns.
In contrast to these cozy scenes of normalcy, an exterior view reveals a lunar landscape of desolate peaks enclosing the resort. Ominous explosions – designed to set off “controlled” avalanches — and flashes of light disturb the emptiness.
The next day things start to go wrong. Eating lunch on a patio overlooking the mountains, the family watches with the other diners one such avalanche. Curiosity turns to panic as it mounts higher and seems about to engulf them all. Then it subsides, the mist clears, everyone is safe, and they resume eating.
Tomas and Ebba will never dine again in peace. Like the characters in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, they can’t get through a dinner or social engagement without having the occasion derailed (it also resembles Buñuel’s film in its cryptic ending). Tomas did not act as his paternal role dictates during the avalanche, and after a couple of glasses of wine, Ebba can’t resist relating the incident to whomever their unfortunate guests might be.
Poor Tomas is not the only one cringing. Though the daily chapters are punctuated by a zesty, farcical excerpt from Vivaldi’s “Summer” on the soundtrack and with the spectacle of insect-like snow-making machines busily skittering along the slopes, you might feel like you could use a vacation by the time this one ends.
Peter Keough, currently a contributor to The Boston Globe, had been the film editor of The Boston Phoenix from 1989 until its demise in March. He edited Kathryn Bigelow Interviews (University Press of Mississippi, 2013) and is now editing a book on children and movies for Candlewick Press.