The creeping power of an avalanche sets in motion the forward march of a family’s breakdown in Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. Currently doing a victory lapof arthouse cinemas, the films is a must-see that set alight last year’s Cannes, sweeping up the Jury Prize on its way to crashing into cinemas a year later. It’s a powerful, affecting and brutally intense drama that takes place high amongst the French Alps. We follow a beautiful, affluent, apparently happy nuclear family, as they ski, eat and relax together in the mountaintop hotel. Until a cascade of snow descends upon their resort, and their true natures are exposed.
The film is excruciatingly tense right from the beginning.The hotel perches precariously against the vastness of the mountains. An intrusive janitor watches the family a little too closely. We hear muffled conversations and sneaky asides – rifts in this family’s perfect veneer which seem destined to break into yawning cracks. And all the while, we watch, at a distance, as director Östlund controls the pace, forcing us to observe long ski-lift rides, gradual movements along a conveyor belt, long silences as the family wait for food. We watch as the parents absent-mindedly stop watching their children – perhaps just for a crucial moment too long. In these moments we feel a simmering heat, unexpressed grievances, the first particles that will gather momentum and a million other unexpressed feelings until these people’s frustrations become an unstoppable force. It’s nail-biting stuff, and a real feat of directorial ingenuity.
The incredible adult cast – led by Johannes Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli – are uniformly wonderful. Kuhnke in particular is magnificent as the family’s patriarch as he begins to realise just how delicate his self-worth and masculinity are. Konglsi too delivers incredible work in the less showy role of the mother, precisely revealing the frustrations and claustrophobia she feels being caught between her independence and allegiance to the family unit she’s formed. Both are incredibly cast, he with all the openess and breezy masculinity of dad-bodded Scandinavian Stephen Dorff, she haughty, classically beautiful, perhaps a little too calculating. Both are able to convey character just by being. The chemistry between the two is white hot, almost searingly so. A late night tooth-brush session in front of the bathroom mirror expresses everything in the silence. They’re a magnetic pair, almost a force of nature.
The minor key of the story allows us to scrutinise every choice each character makes, parse out the extent to which personal vendettas cloud their clear judgement. These characters are flawed, bitter, selfish, and all the more understandable for it. We chastise their arrogance, and that of the resort itself, attempting to offer respite and safety from the cruel elements whilst sitting so delicately on a ledge – one stunning late night drone sequence in particular captures this, as blinking red lights nip across the creaking, monolithic mountains. The film is a real tale of fire and ice, warmth and coldness. Expressive closeup invites us into the characters’ minds, then demands objective judgement by deploying a well-timed long shot. The film finds its rhythms, and plays them at an ever-increasing intensity. It is a tour de force of storytelling, taking huge risks and stylistic gambles which never feel showy or forced.
Force Majeure is a marvel. It’s gut wrenching, devastating, and not to be missed.