A guy abandons his family to an avalanche. The next 110 minutes are going to be awkward.
October 17, 2014
Is there any social situation more painfully awkward than being in the presence of a couple having an argument? The hair-curling passive-aggression. The teeth-grinding fake smiles. The years and years of squabbles and resentment finally coming to a head. And you, sitting there, wanting nothing more than to evaporate into thin air. Imagine that experience stretched out for two whole hours, and you'll have a rough idea of what it's like to watch Force Majeure.
The single worst date movie to come out of the European arthouse circuit since Charlotte Gainsbourg become intimately familiar with a pair of rusty scissors in Antichrist, Ruben Östlund's probe of a marriage in crisis is at once brilliant and impossible to bear. Part piercing relationship drama, part deliciously mean-spirited black comedy, the film follows a wealthy Swedish family on a skiing holiday in France. In the opening scene, we see them lining up on the slopes for an impromptu family photograph. Perfect husband. Perfect wife. Two impossibly perfect kids.
But disaster can strike even the most photogenic of families — and in Force Majeure it quite literally does. The four are sitting down to lunch when snow begins to cascade down the mountain. A controlled avalanche suddenly no longer under control, the white wall barrels towards the balcony restaurant. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) seizes the children in her arms and looks desperately towards her husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke)... just in time to see him running in the other direction. That is, until everyone realises it was all just a false alarm, at which point he slinks quietly back to the table so the four of them can finish their meal.
It's an ingenious setup to one of the most uncomfortable films you're ever likely to see. At first, no-one wants to talk about what happened. So it hangs in the air, like a fart you're too embarrassed to admit to. Inevitably, though, it has to be addressed. Forced jokes lead to tight-lipped denials which in turn lead to public accusations. Östlund clearly delights in the opportunity to make his characters — along with his audience — squirm in their seats. Scenes invariably run longer than feels natural, until you're practically begging for the director to cut away.
It's especially tough to watch because deep down, you can't help but wonder about what you'd have done in the same situation. Yet the film isn't so much scathing of Tomas's split-second reaction as it is of his refusal to own up to it. As a merciless, darkly comedic takedown of masculine delusion, Force Majeure would make for an ideal double feature with the recently released Gone Girl. Frankly, these Swedes make their American counterparts look positively meant-to-be.
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