The not-so-happy family at the center of Ruben Östlund's striking Force Majeure is literally pulled into frame by a chatty tourist photographer. While on vacation at a lodge in the French Alps, attractive parents Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two young children are asked to pose at the top of a ski slope overlooking an epic void. They awkwardly brush up against each other, trying to form an image of faux-comfort that the cameraman recognizes as normal. But it's an entirely false representation, one Force Majeure seeks to dissect through disruptive patterns both man-made and elemental.
Signs of familial frustration can already be found in the opening moments. Ebba gives Tomas dirty looks for looking at his phone while they are supposed to be taking a break from work. Mostly, these small incidents evoke a regular rhythm, a daily metronome of actions that hide emotional repression. Mechanical sounds emanate from the ski lift while various other pulley systems clamor and creak, complementing this motif with a sound design that both lulls and disorients in equal measure. Östlund further complicates matters by injecting a short but forceful music cue that invokes the beginning of a new chapter.
The inciting incident of Force Majeure comes when a controlled avalanche steamrolls toward the family and their fellow diners at a posh outdoor restaurant that looks out across a frigid valley. As curiosity turns to excitement and then panic, Tomas' flagrant reaction to the potential tragedy shakes the film's narrative like a devastating quake. Östlund's camera never moves during this awe-struck sequence, instead letting the momentum of the avalanche careen into the narrative as if both were symbolically and literally inevitable. Snow particles engulf the frame, producing a white-out that slowly dissipates to reveal the same image of collective harmony forever deformed.
What follows is a slow-moving avalanche of its own, albeit of the emotional variety. Traumatized by her husband's betrayal, Ebba struggles to reconcile his inability to even discuss the event truthfully. At a glaringly uncomfortable dinner with friends, the couple struggles to keep their frustrations private. No longer willing to let her husband off the hook, Ebba bulldozes Tomas in a fit of confrontation. Östlund's static composition pins them together, becoming a hysterical portrait of female angst and male insecurity in one fell swoop. As the couple sits speechless, waiters off screen sing "Happy Birthday" to another table, a nasty little exclamation point if there ever was one.
Force Majeure deals in similarly hilariously awkward moments where Ebba and Tomas dance around the formality usually associated with social situations while their rage seeps to the forefront. This anxiety eventually spreads to Tomas' brother (Kristover Hivju) and his young girlfriend (Fanni Metelius) after the foursome shares a disastrous dinner of their own. All the while, Östlund continues using rhythmic audio cues during external wide shots of the mountain range and ski lodge, providing a numbing and magisterial counterpoint to the intimate arguments between Ebba and Tomas.
Surreal flashes invade the narrative, further disrupting the couple's downfall. Tomas gets consumed by a swarm of shirtless drunks, and Ebba loses herself in a wooded area. Both are searching for a space to reclaim what's been consumed by their relationship. It all culminates in a literal descent down the mountain, helmed by the worst bus driver in film history, providing each character a second chance to revise his or her fate.
Not just about the treacherous slopes of marriage, Force Majeure —which opens Friday, Nov. 7, at La Jolla Village Cinemas—grapples with the puncturing impact of compromise. While leading your family into the oblivion is more courageous than staying silently mired in the muck of your own ego, both options are based in delusion. The only true experience is primal: fight, flight or scream.