Family vacations are
designed to be a relaxing getaway, but the Griswolds proved time and again that it doesn't always work out that way. Putting the family holiday on the ski slopes, "Force Majeure" is a crisply photographed week-long death spiral for the marriage of Tomas and Ebba.
Because Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) has been working so hard lately, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) felt a trip to the French Alps would invigorate the family and reset her husband's focus on the things that really matter. There appear to be no signs of a relationship in shambles when they arrive, however, some of the most dysfunctional relationships seldom look that way to outsiders. The first day on their vacation, Tomas, Ebba and the kids are having fun, taking pictures and enjoying their time together.
But then day two happens.
Eating lunch outside at a mountaintop restaurant, the family hears the explosions that presage a controlled avalanche. Tomas tells his family there's nothing to worry about, but the powder keeps raging toward them until the entire restaurant is covered. One of two things happened at the family's table: Either Tomas moved away from the wall of snow, or he ran, leaving his wife and children behind—but remembering to grab his phone. This is the focal point of the entire film, and the couple revisits it almost half a dozen times to either get their story straight or accuse one another of something, depending on the mood. Relationships are full of shit like this.
"Force Majeure" is Sweden's official entry into the Academy Awards this year. All three of its previous winners in the Best Foreign Language Film category were directed by Ingmar Bergman ("The Virgin Spring" and "Through a Glass Darkly" in 1960 and 1961, and "Fanny and Alexander" in 1983). There are definitely notes of Bergman's "Scenes from a Marriage" here, but "Force Majeure" is confidently its own work, one that speaks the universal language of doomed love.
The use of an avalanche as a metaphor might be a bit heavy-handed, but it opens us up to the Alps. Director Ruben Östlund redefines the meaning of this snow-covered landscape in a number of different ways, depending on the where he is in the story. It's desolate, implying either that Tomas or Ebba are all alone in this relationship or that there's simply no way out; it's bright and white, a blank canvas for a new beginning; it's cold and unforgiving, a reminder of the consequences of one's actions; and it's a long way down from here, because it's a long way down from here.
Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli are terrific. At any moment they look like they might hurl each other off a cliff or jump into bed for some make-up sex. That unmistakable shorthand couples acquire over time, the nonverbal cues that say so much, are embedded into each moment of the film, whether things are on solid footing for the couple or the ground is giving way below them. That helps establish an authenticity and—let's face it—helps us choose sides.
Anyone who has lived through one of those relationships where it's never the big things that topple it but the accumulation of little things will hate every minute of "Force Majeure," which is perversely a pretty high compliment. The film does a spectacular job setting the stage for an aftermath, then walking away to watch the fireworks with us.
There is a moment after Ebba recounts the avalanche to Tomas' friend, Mats, and his much younger girlfriend, Fanny, which shows the true poisonous nature of these things. After debating the sequence of events all night, Mats and Fanny are leaving the resort. Once the elevator door closes, she says, "I wonder what you would do in that situation." Oh boy. The seed of doubt has set in—finding a new host couple to infect—and here we go again.
Ain't love grand?
Starring Johannes Bah Kuhnke and Lisa Loven Kongsli
Directed by Ruben Östlund
Opens Friday, Nov. 21 at the Loft Cinema, 3233 E. Speedway Blvd.