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Reality bites in “Force Majeure”

Nicholas Barber on a comedy-drama that hits home

Nicholas Barber | April 9th 2015

The Swedish family in Ruben Ostlund’s sublime comedy-drama, “Force Majeure”, could have strolled straight out of a holiday brochure. When we first see them posing for a photograph on an Alpine mountainside in designer ski togs, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are as attractively sculpted and well dressed as models, and their adorable son and daughter complete a picture of wholesome Scandinavian health and harmony.

There is a similar photogenic gorgeousness to the avalanche they see on the other side of the valley the next day, just as they’re sitting down to lunch on a restaurant terrace. Tomas explains that it is a controlled avalanche, set off by the resort managers, but when the thundering wave of snow gets worryingly close to the terrace, he panics and runs for cover, leaving Ebba clinging to their terrified children. The killer detail: he grabbed his phone and his gloves from the restaurant table before he bolted.

Still, no harm was done, so the family carries on with its skiing holiday as if nothing has happened—for a few hours, at least. But then, over a glass of wine at the resort restaurant that evening, Ebba describes the incident to a couple they’ve just met. In one of several wonderfully acted dialogue scenes, she veers between disgust at Tomas’s cowardice and hysterical laughter that he won’t accept her version of events. Tomas, meanwhile, clutches at any straw that might stop his macho pride nosediving. He didn’t run away, he bleats: “Is it even possible to run in ski boots?” But his complacent self-image as a caring father and high-flying breadwinner is already crumbling, and the remaining days of the holiday will determine whether his ungallant fleeing will be remembered as an embarrassing anecdote or the bomb that blew the family to pieces.

“Force Majeure” is a compassionate but piercingly funny study of how people react to danger, as well as how they react to someone else’s reaction, so to speak. When Ebba tells the story again to two friends of theirs, their attitudes are divided intriguingly along gender and generational lines. Tomas’s viking-bearded buddy Mats (Kristofer Hivju, aka Tormund Giantsbane in “Game Of Thrones”) has a bash at the “survival instinct” defence—insisting, nonetheless, that he would never have run away himself—while his younger hippy girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius) argues that it’s an age thing: she and her twentysomething peers are more altruistic than anyone of Tomas’s vintage.

Ostlund is also astute in observing how real couples, rather than movie ones, behave when trouble hits. Most writer-directors would have had the wife walking out, or at least sending her husband to another hotel room. But Tomas and Ebba have too much invested in the marriage, and their luxury holiday, to abandon either. They still brush their teeth side by side in the bathroom every night, and they still go skiing every morning. As angry and anguished as they are, they don’t want to upset the children. And they don’t want to embarrass themselves in front of the cleaner, a comically laconic figure who always seems to be lurking nearby, cigarette in hand, when they have a row.

The film’s split-second turning point gives it the feel of a classic short story, while the intense hotel-room discussions wouldn’t be out of place on stage, but “Force Majeure” is deeply cinematic. The avalanche sequence is a triumph, unfolding in one unbroken, heart-stopping shot. And the elegant resort is a magical setting, rendered even more fascinating by Ostlund’s focus on its nocturnal behind-the-scenes maintenance: the caterpillar-tracked buggies smoothing the snow for the next day’s skiing, the cannons that boom ominously in the dark, setting off further controlled avalanches. The thematic relevance is plain: even the most picture-perfect institution, whether it’s a ski resort or a family, needs regular care and attention. Otherwise, disaster may strike.

Force Majeure is in British cinemas from April 10th

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