A Swedish couple and their two young children are enjoying an idyllic ski holiday in the French Alps. Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) is finally relaxed enough to ignore his cell phone. And Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is relieved to have some sorely needed help with the kids and exhale with a glass of wine. All is well…for the moment. Then, after a morning on the slopes, the family is enjoying an outdoor lunch on the patio of a mountainside restaurant when a cannon goes off that triggers a controlled avalanche — an event that’s such a common occurrence that its thundering report becomes background noise. But there’s something different about the wall of snow coming toward them. It’s too big and moving too fast. The children start to scream. And in that split-second moment of panic, Tomas grabs his phone and runs, leaving his wife and children behind to fend for themselves. The disaster turns out to be a false alarm; the avalanche stops just short of them. But everything is far from fine. Ebba is horrified by the cowardly way her husband reacted and his dismissive, cavalier attitude about it afterward.
That’s the match that ignites Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s quietly devastating tinderbox psychodrama, Force Majeure. The title comes from a legal term whereby an unforeseen event prevents a contract from being fulfilled. Which is a perfect description of the film. It feels like a missing chapter from fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 masterpiece of matrimonial atrophy, Scenes From a Marriage. Östlund, who won a Jury Prize at Cannes for the movie earlier this year, isn’t just asking audiences to consider what they’d do in a situation like this. He’s digging deeper, posing uncomfortable questions about the male ego, the female protective instinct, and whether a selfish act like Tomas’ can ever be forgiven or forgotten. Some of the film’s symbolism is a bit on-the-nose (the avalanche as metaphor for something that starts small and snowballs out of control). But it’s the rare kind of moviegoing experience that will haunt you long after you leave the theater and lead to some very awkward conversations with your spouse. A-