Starring Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli. In Swedish and French, with English subtitles. Rated PG.
Who knew one the strongest, funniest, and most disturbing films of the year would follow a well-off Swedish family through an unexpectedly challenging ski holiday in the French Alps? Force Majeure isn’t really about that; it’s a clear-eyed and therefore wickedly satirical look at modern modes of masculinity.
These are pondered with varying degrees of desperation by Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), model-pretty wife Ebba (Norway’s Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their spoiled, colour-coded brats (siblings Vincent and Clara Wettergren). The couple is already on thin ice, thanks to unspoken issues, when their second day at a château of surreal modernity is interrupted by an event both natural and artificial. Apparently, the hotel regularly sets off small explosions to keep the snow moving in amounts that can be handled. But when the hillside starts encroaching on the outdoor terrace where they’re having breakfast, Tomas grabs his iPhone and runs inside, leaving everyone else al fresco.
For judgmental Ebba, this is the sort of desertion in the field that should get an officer’s sword broken and his epaulettes torn off. For his part, the whiny Tomas refuses to acknowledge that anything happened. Some furious stewing sets in all around, alongside odd adventures on skis, culminating when a red-bearded pal (unforgettable Kristofer Hivju) shows up for a visit with his new, much younger girlfriend (Fanni Metelius), and they manage to drive their hosts, and each other, into a further funk.
I’ve already given away too much here, since most of the (cringe-inducing) fun comes during the unfolding of small events in this fourth, masterful feature from writer-director Ruben Östlund, who specializes in scenarios in which people stifle their true feelings in the face of social pressures. Here, these forces come largely through the film’s spectacular use of technical control, via the quietly disorienting modulation between clean, open digital compositions and unforgivingly intimate close-ups, largely supported by the “Winter” movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. (The avalanche sequence was actually shot in B.C. and green-screened in.)
The movie is thus suffused with the kind of menace that doesn’t let you off the hook even when you realize that no one will actually get hurt, and start to laugh again. By then it’s too late, and you’re up there, lost in all that whiteness.