Force Majeure is slow, uneventful, and thoroughly entertaining. Ruben Ostlund’s arthouse black comedy is a disaster movie in which the disaster never actually materializes, leaving its characters to deal with a much bigger emotional catastrophe, to both dramatic and humorous results. It’s pretty rare to find great foreign films on Netflix, so if you’re looking to expand your cinematic palette a bit, this one’s a great place to start.
Smug Alpine vacationers Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young children are the image of upper-class familial perfection at a pristine, sterile, and expensive hotel. They ski together, brush their teeth together, and sleep together in one bed wearing matching long underwear, in an image that could be mistaken for an L.L. Bean advertisement. Their bliss is abruptly interrupted by a near-miss with a controlled avalanche that sends Tomas sprinting for cover, leaving his wife and screaming kids to fend for themselves. The avalanche doesn’t hit, but Tomas’s blatant cowardice throws the family into an existential crisis.
Tomas coolly plays off his gaffe as an involuntary survival reflex, but Ebba and the kids know better. The kids ice out their parents, while Ebba questions the very foundation of her marriage. A conversation with casual polyamorist Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg) has her arguing fiercely for the value of monogamy and the traditional nuclear family, but she’s trying to convince herself more than she’s trying to convince her new friend. If it can fall apart so easily, is a family even worth having? Charlotte’s arrangement has none of the values of exclusivity, commitment, and longevity that are important to Ebba and Tomas, but she’s the happiest person at the hotel. If her relationship situation changes, fine. Her identity isn’t wrapped up in who she spends her life with.
While Ebba desperately tries to rationalize her life choices, Tomas spirals under the realization that he’s not the protective, heroic man that he’s supposed to be. Unable to face up to what happened, he copes by lying to himself, his wife, and anyone else who will listen. Although his initial action was reprehensible, his ultimate betrayal of his family lies in his inability to be honest with them in the wake of the crisis.
On top of the emotionally heavy subject matter, Ostlund’s directorial style would seem to demand a lot from the audience’s attention span. The cinematography is composed primarily of static shots, many of which last several minutes without a cut. Slow pacing and lack of conventional narrative cues also present a challenge to the viewer. But Ostlund’s clever and skillful use of “artsy” stylistic elements contribute to both comedy and suspense, making Force Majeure grippingly entertaining even at two hours running time.
In the funniest scene, we get nothing but an endless wide shot of Tomas and buddy Mats (Kristofer Hivju) lounging outside at the ski lodge, beers in hand. They are interrupted by some young ladies, only one of which we see, who build up and then promptly demolish the men’s egos. It’s a joke we’ve all seen play out before, but Ostlund’s direction makes it fresh. A typical director would likely include a number of cuts in this type of scene, but the voyeuristic nature of the static camera makes the moment feel realistic and spontaneous.
Ostlund’s deliberate style is also used to great dramatic effect. Long periods of inactivity build suspense to the point where we’re certain something is about to happen, even though the plot gives us no indication as to what that might be. Far being boring, the tension kept me glued to the screen.
Force Majeure has been on Netflix for quite a while, so I’d give it a try before it gets booted, even if you’re not typically inclined to arthouse fare. You might be pleasantly surprised.