By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist May 27, 2014 at 10:01AM
A biting satire that plays out with almost crystalline precision in the rarefied, thin-air environs of an upscale ski resort, Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s fourth feature, “Force Majeure” took the Jury (runner up) prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, but also, more importantly, took the coveted honor of being The Film We’d Heard Nothing About Prior That Gained So Much Buzz While There We Had To See It (last year’s recipient: “Stranger By The Lake”). And so our last Sunday in Cannes found us calculating shuttle journeys and negotiating potential airport strike delays to squeeze in the catch-up screening, and it was thoroughly worth it: “Force Majeure” is a brutally smart and original film that capped off Cannes in bracing style — its edge is so keen, and its movements so deft that it’s not till you’re out the cinema and up the road that you realize how cutting it was.
We spend the initial minutes establishing the perfectly nuclear nature of the central family: Handsome, fit Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), attractive, willowy Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children, Vera and Harry (terrifically nuanced juvenile performances from Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren). As the film starts, they’re getting their picture taken against a stunning snowy mountainscape backdrop, dressed in seemingly professional-grade skiwear and arranging themselves and their dazzling smiles according to the instructions of the photographer. The resulting image is so stock-footage perfect it could be the generic picture you get inside a new wallet, before they go back to the hotel and fall asleep tangled up in the bed in their thermal underclothes — a straight-up Damart commercial. But already Ostlund has somehow established, by the airiness of his set ups, by the falsity of their photogenic smiles,that something not-perfect it going to happen to shake their complacency — it’s almost a relief when it does.
Lunching on a terrace in a scene that plays out entirely in one unbroken locked-off shot, they stop to watch as an explosion sets off a controlled avalanche. But it seems to go out of control, a huge white wall of roiling snow coming charging at them like a tsunami, and fascination turns to panic as people scramble to get away. Ebba instinctively grabs her children, but when she looks to him for help, sees Tomas picking up his gloves and his iPhone and, to put it baldly, scarpering. It’s a disaster movie set-up, and so the film proves to be a disaster film, just not one that has anything to do with snow, because the avalanche proves to be a false alarm and no one is physically harmed. Tomas’ relationship with his family, however, has undergone a massive revolution — all of them saw him abandon them when he thought his own life was in jeopardy, and none can forgive him, especially as he chooses simply to deny Ebba’s interpretation of events.
Adding another layer of cringey horror is the delayed-shock way that Ebba’s accusations first pour out from her: not when they’re alone, but when they’re in the company of another couple (including Brady Corbet in the third of his Cannes film appearances —“Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Saint Laurent” being the others) for a drink that evening. And so suddenly an element of social embarrassment is added — Tomas’ shame and Ebba’s fury mounting the more he tries to maintain the illusion that it was no big deal, that his behavior didn’t abrogate the most fundamental societal and familial roles a man is supposed to fulfill.
The simplicity of this central moral dilemma feels so unforced (and kind of “Why did no one think of this before?”-ish) that it suggests its roots in reality; it was in fact based on a real story of a friend of Ostlund’s who couldn’t believe that her husband had run away and left her when a gunman suddenly opened fire. Transposing it to the antiseptic surroundings of an upmarket ski resort, however, enables Ostlund make subtle, Haneke-esque observations about the sterility of the upper-middle-class environment, and just how ill equipped we are, despite, or perhaps because of, all our levels of sophistication to cope when things gets real. It also makes for some wonderful shotmaking (fine work from DP Fredrik Wenzel) while also allowing Ostlund to go back to his skiing-filmmaker roots for the film’s many impressive ski sequences.
Ultimately the story spins slowly outward from the tight, almost existential conundrum at its core and loses a little of its momentum and focus as a result, especially as it feels like the film runs a little long. The third acts sees Ostlund train his steely gaze onto others: onto Ebba, or onto Tomas’ friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) whose attempts to excuse or ameliorate Tomas’ actions get some of the film’s driest, most deadpan laughs. These slow shifts don’t work quite as well as the first two thirds, with the throughlines of blame and guilt getting a bit tangled. But blame it is, make no mistake. Ostlund may be Swedish but he’s not Bergman, and there’s little compassion for the characters here. And that's not a criticism, it's just the type of film this is, cerebral rather than visceral, ruthless rather than emotive. Perhaps their bourgeois privilege is just too pointed for us to be able to truly empathize with, or perhaps we’d rather not identify too closely with people who’ve been forced into an extreme circumstance and come up wanting. Whatever the case, “Force Majeure” cleverly and crisply presents a simple truth: we can never know how we might react in a crisis, all we can know is that we’ll be judged on it. [A-/B+]