The strained family portraits that open Ruben Ostlund’s droll new film Force Majeure immediately indicate something awry in the marriage at its center. Visibly uncomfortable, Tomas awkwardly leans his head on his wife, Ebba, at the command of the photographer, displaying obvious irritation through a forced smile. He would rather be on his cell phone, taking a work call, than spending a 5-day luxury ski vacation in the Swiss Alps with his wife and two kids.
The half-there, flippant attitude he carries toward his role as father and husband becomes quickly and disturbingly apparent during a family lunch in the first twelve-minutes of the film—an avalanche speeds toward their table, and Tomas, instead of protecting his loved ones, runs for his life, a minor-major event setting in motion a series of denials and queasy conversations. At first Ebba denies any contempt for Tomas’ selfish actions, agreeing to forget about it and move on together. But as the two converse with other couples around the resort, the avalanche looms over their relationship like a gathering storm. A shaken Ebba repeatedly brings it up in conversation, unwilling to it slip from memory. Tomas makes the situation worse by refusing to apologize and accept responsibility; neither in private, nor in front of his friends, even as the power dynamic in his relationship seem to be shifting in new directions.
This dissection of patriarchal roles is anything but didactic: an obvious point of comparison is Julia Loktev’s equally brilliant 2011 film The Loneliest Planet, which also dealt with a couple experiencing inescapable trauma, but Ostlund’s film differs in its ambitious exploration of male ego and gender roles, as well as its frequently hilarious treatment of the material. The committed performances go a long way in bringing to life the film’s emotional core, but DP Fredrik Wenzel also bears mentioning—the snowy tableau serving as the film’s backdrop is beautifully rendered, tracking the characters up and down the massive slopes and through the long hallways of the resort with surreal languor.