“Force Majeure,” a Golden Globe nominee for best foreign language film, is subversively funny and visually striking. Set in the French Alps, it tells a story about a family vacation that goes wrong in a most unsettling way.
In Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s fourth feature film, a seemingly ideal Swedish family of four takes a skiing holiday. Tomas and Ebba are a handsome couple with two elementary school age children, Vera and younger brother, Harry.
The ski resort offers family fun on the slopes and stunning vistas. Ebba chides her husband for checking his phone for work-related content. He’s supposed to be on vacation.
Following a happy first day on the slopes, they all collapse into the same bed, like bears in a den. As the family sleeps, explosions in the mountains produce controlled avalanches. Tons of snow rushes down the mountains.
“Force Majeure” neatly marks each day at the resort. The trouble begins on Ski Day Two. Tomas and his family and a crowd of fellow vacationers are having lunch on an open-air patio that has a spectacular winter backdrop.
When an unusual daytime blast produces a controlled avalanche, everyone watches the spectacle. But then it appears that the avalanche will cover the patio. Tomas runs away, leaving his wife and children behind as a white cloud engulfs the terrified vacationers.
“Force Majeure” translates to superior force, irresistible force. The term also describes an event that cannot be controlled or anticipated. Snow could be the uncontrollable force, but more likely the force in “Force Majeure” is Tomas’ instinct for self preservation.
Following Tomas’ dash to safety, Östlund’s script subtly plots the puzzlement and evolving disappointment and anger that poisons his family’s vacation.
Along the way, Tomas’ friend, Mats, and Mats’ girlfriend, Fanni, visit the family in their hotel room. A few glasses of wine release Ebba’s suspicions and inhibitions. She tells the guests about the avalanche and her husband’s reaction. The amusingly uncomfortable Mats struggles to rationalize Tomas’ abandonment of his family.
The Swedish and Norwegian cast of “Force Majeure” is, no surprise, unknown to American audiences. But there’s no escaping the soul-exposing dramatic work that Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli do as this couple in snow-bound distress. Kristofer Hivju, playing the prodigiously bearded Mats, and Fanni Metelius as the middle-aged Mats’ 20-year-old girlfriend, Fanni, balance the drama with comic scenes. Playing Tomas and Ebba’s children, real-life sister and brother Clara and Vincent Wettergren couldn’t be better in their roles as the children whose world suddenly collapses.
“Force Majeure” writer-director Östlund, 42, is a filmmaker to watch. If he makes more films as amusing, perceptive and finely crafted as this one, he’ll be a force in world cinema.