An avalanche seems like the right metaphor for trouble that starts small, gathers momentum and ultimately threatens to wipe out the peaceful balance of a posh Scandi couple’s ski vacation — and possibly even their marriage — in Ruben Ostlund’s precisely calibrated fourth feature, “Force majeure.” By no means a traditional disaster movie, in which the audience’s pleasure scales in direct proportion to the pandemonium witnessed onscreen, Ostlund’s unsettling psychological thriller leads with the spectacular incident and studies its disastrous consequences on each of the family members involved. Visually stunning even in its most banal moments and emotionally perceptive almost to a fault, the film stands to complicate many a romantic arthouse date.
Of all the satirists working in cinema today, Ostlund displays perhaps the slyest streak of dark humor — a touch so subtle that it’s sometimes tricky to discern whether he’s actually commenting on whatever malice happens to be unfolding onscreen. (Answer: He is always commenting.) For audiences, the interpretational challenge comes in the sheer distance the helmer puts between himself and the characters, having pioneered — and one might argue perfected, this time around — a style in which he shoots scenes from afar on high-resolution digital video and then makes his final decisions on the framing, camera moves and such during his lengthy post-production process.
In Ostlund’s previous feature, “Play,” an extended arm’s-length re-creation of a real-life bullying incident, that perceived ambivalence could be excruciating. But in “Force majeure,” where icy detachment suits the situation at the same time that the helmer’s creative choices are more apparent, the style finally feels justified: It’s Michael Haneke meets “Scenes From a Marriage” as Ostlund chronicles the moment that a couple ceases to see one another in the same way, triggered by a perceived catastrophe in which the father figure’s split-second instinct is one of self-preservation, rather than sacrificing himself to save his clan.
In its very calculated way, the film serves to document all that will inevitably be omitted from the family’s official record of their five-day ski vacation, as suggested from the first shot, in which this seemingly perfect clan — father Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), mother Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), son and daughter (real-life sibs Vincent and Clara Wettergren) — poses for a contrived group portrait on the slopes. Whereas they self-edit their memories to fit their own narrative, Ostlund observes the minutiae, right down to the bathroom breaks.
The infamous avalanche occurs on day two of their visit, which first gives them them a chance to look the part of the perfect Ikea-catalog family. And then, in what seems destined to become the most famous shot of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, an avalanche begins on the mountain opposite and approaches the family — and the audience, by extension — with an urgency strong enough to reinforce the notion of moviegoers ducking “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” more than a century ago.
Ostlund achieved this stunning shot by compositing footage of a real British Columbia avalanche with the actors against a greenscreen, stitched together amid a cloud of CG powder. Having opened the film in an incredibly cinematic way (even before the avalanche, bursts of Vivaldi punctuate each day, while clever montages intercut the work required to maintain the slopes with the family’s before-bed tooth-brushing routine), Ostlund shifts the drama to a much subtler register, relying on body language and other discreet cues to reveal the fissures that have appeared in the relationship.
The kids are the first to react, having witnessed what must feel like abandonment by their father during this critical moment. Then, Ebba brings it up over dinner, threatening Tomas’ masculinity in the process. She refuses to let it go, raising the story again in front of Tomas’ best friend (Kristofer Hivju), who finds it impossible to sleep that night wondering how he might react in the same situation. Ironically, Tomas happened to catch it all on his iPhone, though we see his reaction rather than the screen during the replay. In another unconventional scene, Tomas suffers an embarrassingly loud breakdown in the hotel corridor while a janitor looks on from above (the volume being yet another tactic by which Ostlund can unnerve audiences).
Under all this scrutiny, the film starts to feel a bit stagnant — not unlike any vacation spent cooped up in one location — and yet two astonishing scenes remain. The first, which occurs back on the slopes, represents a way for Tomas to symbolically redeem himself in his children’s eyes, while the last is open to many possible interpretations. Not in question are the facts the patriarchal order has been upset, Tomas’ instincts are not to be trusted, and next time there’s a possible disaster to be avoided, it’s Ebba who calls the shots.