“You can’t run in snow boots?”
Very rarely does an international name change occur for the better, but few titles are more perfect for their respective film than Force Majeure. The original Swedish moniker was Turist, a succinct and appropriate label considering the entire piece portrays a family’s five-day ski vacation in French Alps. Force Majeure, however, showcases the powerfully random event that changes the tone and dynamic of the characters involved as well as the story itself. The beauty of Ruben Östlund‘s creation is that this moment arising to show what they’re made of in a time of crisis isn’t an isolated one. More tests pop up at inopportune times, pulling everyone farther away from one another despite the whole purpose of the trip being to restart, reunite, and remember the love and trust held before life’s unplanned detour towards resentment and annoyance.
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) works too much while Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) looks after their young children Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren). His phone is always going off and it seems he has drifted from the rest in a way his wife can no longer take silently. That is what this getaway is about—to put everything on the back burner that doesn’t have to do with their nuclear quartet. But while the first day on the slopes seems to depict a family like any other sticking together and having fun, the truth soon reveals itself. One could even say the awkwardness of the opening scene’s resort photographer posing them for free photos goes beyond normal levels of discomfort. It actually seems as though they don’t quite know exactly what to do to express shared happiness.
This introduction to the clan is a perfect precursor for what’s to come not only because it shows how out-of-sync they are, but also due to the shot’s overlong duration flittering with uneasiness. That adjective could be used to describe so many scenes as passive aggressive natures replace the necessary conversations couples have to stay sane. The aforementioned event catalyzing so much may not be the only instance causing such discomfort, but the way Ebba puts Tomas on the spot to admit he’s wrong in front of both strangers and friends is painful to endure in the best way possible. Tension is also noticed in innocuous long takes like Harry’s tantrum post-skiing on the conveyor belt taking them back to the hotel. There’s blame to go around and everyone’s ready to place it elsewhere, even the kids.
Östlund expresses this feeling of uncertainty and pent-up anger so naturally that you can’t help relate to each uncomfortable situation. You ask yourself what you’d have done in similar circumstances, wonder whether conversations such as Ebba and Charlotte’s (Karin Myrenberg) about the logistics of an open marriage will go further than talk, and question if Tomas’ lie is actually a warped memory despite knowing the incident occurred exactly as Ebba describes. Add the authentic reactions of those forced to unwittingly witness this marital strife—especially Tomas’ old chum Mats (Kristofer Hivju)—making excuses they don’t believe simply because they want the subject changed and we’re faced with the same excruciating dilemma as them. And frankly, doing so with popcorn and soda might make us worse than the hotel janitor (Johannes Moustos) blatantly spying as he smokes.
The film is painfully voyeuristic as a result because we cannot stop watching. A husband and wife confronting personal demons thanks to an incident that calls into question their strength of character beyond lying or cheating is more intimate than catching them having sex ever could. We see the tears of betrayal on a level so deep and cutting that looking away should be our only response. Between Ebba breaking down and shaking because she knows airing her duress in a public forum is both unfair and necessary to make her husband hear her, Tomas blubbering at his own insufficiencies and inability to live with himself anymore, and little Harry silently weeping at the thought his parents are on the road to divorce, Force Majeure is on paper the most depressing and real drama of the year.
And yet I haven’t mentioned how hilarious it is. Maybe it’s the story’s universality or its fearlessness at portraying the quiet moments of anger and disbelief, but it is undeniably funny. The word vomit from outsiders trying to defuse the bomb of what Tomas did; the way Ebba’s reaction projects onto Mats’ much younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius) to spark her to jokingly confront him and create their own seed of disquiet; and the constant moments of missed connections that have you fearing the worst—they all earn laughter that spans gut-bustingly huge to a faux giggle of nervousness. Östlund writes in a way that teases a black as night trajectory and yet is able to flip our preconceptions so the suspense is made more real courtesy of our unavoidable overreactions.
While a fantastic bit of purposeful construction on its smallest scale, Östlund’s utilization on the whole’s wider scope does come off a bit more unsettling and mystifying than I’d have liked. At a certain point towards the end of Day Four and Day Five, a bit of randomness offsets the carefully unfolding events of the previous three days. A moment on the slopes during a blizzard goes from heart-pounding intensity to utter confusion on a dime and a final bus ride turns from horrifying roller coaster to calming serenity. Both scenes are exquisitely gorgeous with snow blinding the frame in white and a windshield view down the mountain freaking us out respectively, but I wonder about their place. Nevertheless, it certainly helps prove how an unavoidable accident of superior force can change everything you’ve ever known about yourself.
 Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren and Lisa Loven Kongsli FORCE MAJEURE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Kristofer Hivju and Johannes Bah Kuhnke in FORCE MAJEURE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren, and Lisa Loven Kongsli in FORCE MAJEURE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.