Ruben Ostlund’s Force Majeure is a tense, prickly comedy of manners in the key of Haneke. Set at a winter resort in the French Alps, it concerns a well-to-do Swedish family (husband, wife, pre-adolescent daughter and son) who have come for a five-day ski vacation. The simmering tensions within the family threaten to explode after they witness an avalanche that very nearly engulfs them in the middle of lunch at an open-air restaurant. Just as a tidal wave of snow appears to be headed straight for the family, the husband bolts, leaving his wife and kids behind to fend for themselves. It’s a split-second decision that he will come to regret: even though his family survives physically unscathed, their faith in him as a protective husband and parent has been shaken. The avalanche comes to act as an objective correlative for the way in which a single moment of blind panic can set off a destabilizing chain reaction within a family.
Ostlund, who won a prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, brings a sardonic treatment to this material that’s bracing and unexpected. This is a portrait of a family in crisis that’s played for nervous laughter rather than dour contemplation. Tonally, Force Majeure feels markedly different from Julia Loktev’s The Loneliest Planet (2012), even though the two films share what is essentially the same premise. But even if Force Majeure is wittier, I don’t know that it really goes deeper than Loktev’s film in plumbing the depths of a relationship, or in dramatizing how profoundly a single action—one that unfolds in a mere matter of seconds—can send a couple spiraling into uncertainty and confusion. The two films cover similar territory and even arrive at similar conclusions, but you never get the sense that Loktev is a filmmaker who is more interested in making a series of points than she is in setting up a dramatic situation and watching it unfold. By the end of Force Majeure, by contrast, the dramatic ironies and reversals of Ostlund’s plot have begun to feel tiresome. It’s a film that may be too clever for its own good.