Family frailty exposed in Swedish film ‘Force Majeure’

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A word-of-mouth critical darling and a Cannes Film Festival prize winner, Ruben Ostlund’s  “Force Majeure” has the classic markings of European art house, for better or for worse. Ostlund renders the brooding interiorities of a vacationing family with the same breathtaking grandeur as that of wintry summits of the French Alps. It’s the kind of psychological depth that critics love to call Bergman-esque, referencing the most revered auteur of Swedish cinema. “Force Majeure” is poignant, visually handsome and even hilarious at times, but its glacial pace asks for a painstaking level of patience from its viewers.

Cozily settled at a luxurious ski resort, successful businessman Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and his handsome family are enjoying a posh brunch with a gorgeous landscape view — in their typical, picture-perfect fashion — when the titular catastrophe strikes. An avalanche rumbles in the distance — an astonishing feat of computer graphics — but Tomas assures his nervous wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). “It’s a controlled avalanche,” he says. “They know what they’re doing.”

Yet the rush of thunderous snow proves too close for comfort. Suddenly, all the diners erupt into a clamorous hysteria, panicking and fleeing until the unmoving, unnerving screen goes white.

It turns out that the whiteness that consumes the screen is actually just frosty, smoky air. The avalanche itself has stopped short of impacting the resort. The disaster is anticlimactic, and everyone is safe. This is when the film gets excruciatingly awkward. Ebba is maternally huddled over the children, Vera and Harry (played by twins Clara and Vincent Wettergren), but Tomas is nowhere to be found. He has grabbed his precious iPhone and fled the dining table. When Tomas comes back, he is frantic with denial. The avalanche may have stopped short, but Tomas and Ebba’s marriage goes downhill from here.

The rest of the narrative lies in the immense shadow of this event, as the family struggles to cope with Tomas’ display of unfatherly selfishness. Family interactions — or lack thereof  — are overwrought with stagnance and banality, as each character cannot stop brooding over that morning. Tomas eats a bowl of cereal, alone and guilty. His children face their iPads and ignore him. Ebba decides that she and Tomas should ski separately. At an uncomfortable family dinner, a harshly lit lamp hovers over Tomas, recalling an interrogation room.

“Force Majeure”’s wickedly smart, widescreen cinematography captures the piling emotional

tension. The camera angles are fixed for long and unbearable lengths of time, as if frozen by the film’s winter setting and emotional coldness. The camera doesn’t let its audience look away from this family train wreck. Despite the widescreen format, characters are often half-severed from the screen, visually conveying emotional distance. Also, of course, the sweeping bleakness of the white snow constantly reminds the viewer of the whiteness that blanketed the screen during the avalanche.

The film is so nervous over Tomas’ emasculation that the drama often slips into unsettling, deadpan comedy. It’s the kind of tonal ambiguity that has become a trademark of contemporary Scandinavian directors such as Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. A friend, Mats (Kristofer Hivju), tries to defend Tomas: “Maybe you planned to go back and dig them out of the snow?” Later, Tomas crumbles under the emotional weight and bawls in guilt, but his cries are so hysterical that they sound like half-laughs, and he embarrasses Ebba even more.

This film is incredibly provocative, and it is bound to unearth endless debates between loved ones. But “Force Majeure” may be too smart for its own good. Its careful, ambitious vision can feel too cold and a bit alienating for the casual moviegoer. If you are, however, a champion of cinema as high art and if anything described as “Bergman-esque” titillates, then this film is for you.

“Force Majeure” opens Friday at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco.

Jason Chen covers fashion. Contact him at [email protected].