Sounds seem, and maybe are, louder in isolation — screeching tires, a baby wailing, an avalanche. Such is the model within which Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund (“Play”) works in his sometimes absurd, funny in a look-away-kind-of-way exercise family drama set in the quietude of a tiny Alps ski resort. And it’s really quiet — from the hissing of skis down an unpopulated run to the sun-kissed mountains playing with sleepy zephyrs. It’s also gorgeous. The terrain, the Kubrick-ian ritzy hotel and, of course, the family of four, in their matching, tailored baby-blue pajamas and blemish-free skin, on which the film centers. Doubtless, Östlund might have one of the tightest grips on naturalistic familiality I’ve seen — like when Mom’s so mad at Dad, she actually laughs.
The Michigan Theater
The film title’s thematic significance becomes apparent within minutes (“force majeure” means someone fails to uphold a contract when something unforeseeable happens): while lunching on a hillside with a marvelous view, a distant “controlled” avalanche suddenly becomes not so distant or controlled. Diners begin to freak, screaming and running for dear life. The father, Tomas (winsome newcomer Johannes Bah Kuhnke), on instinct, nabs his iPhone and shades, then bolts, ignoring his two young children and wife Ebba (played by lissome rookie Lisa Loven Kongsli), who blankets her children like a mother should. The result is anything but cataclysmic — no injuries, no trauma, just a few snow-dusted butter plates. Tomas returns to the family table moments later, but, with deft subtlety, the table is so far from “family” that we don’t even know what it is. The emotional maelstrom begins to whirl.
The implicit tension amid the family hurts and is hard to watch. Östlund slices these moments with a few smart tools: Hyperkinetic baroque music akin to a Wes Anderson film and noiseless chairlift rides that let us breathe, prepping for the next teeth-clencher. It doesn’t feel entirely unique, it just feels right — Östlund has a gut for this fusion of well-cast art house and Malick-esque sublimity. The intrafamily conflict gets exposed by an anxious Ebba over drinks with a couple when hiding behind a faux smile, she says that Tomas “ran away from the table like a little girl.” Her smile just sits there, eyes tired, while everyone else looks anywhere but toward her, as if they can’t even fathom her bewilderment. Then, not because we want to, the lens flashes to a broken Tomas. We almost feel bad for him. This scene owns an emotional quotient unmatched by any movie this year, one that makes you respect Östlund as a talented filmmaker, as a human being.
“Force Majeure” is not devoid of flaw. Ebba’s divorced brother-in-law and his 20-year-old girlfriend at first provide an effective soundboard for Ebba’s troubles, but soon fizzle out, Östlund trying to shoehorn an otherwise redundant device into an already compelling yarn. This soon grows irrelevant, getting lost in the oozy subtext of marital gender roles, male conniption fits, the politics of infidelity, the male gaze and the hidden imperfections of an aesthetically perfect family. And, like, other stuff, too. All of this framed like a hovering specter via Fredrik Wenzel’s cam adds a witty, self-aware mystique, inviting us in without ever allowing us to feel at home.
And the acting. The parental performances, by these two no-names, feel real in an unreal way, a way that our parents growing up would seldom reveal, but when they did, it felt cinematic. Östlund smothers us in pulchritude — the modelesque cast, the hotel amenities, the perfectness — without abandoning the root: Nobody lives like a J.Crew catalog, all smiles and riches and no rub, not even the J-Crew mannequins. It’s a fine study on Top 0.01 Percent Problems, but even more, a nuanced mediation on familial psychology.