Smooth slopes, rocky relationships.
"Just who do you think you are?" Those seven words typically signal a taunt or a sneer. But in the darkly funny Swedish film Force Majeure, they mark the collective cri de coeur of a couple perched on the lip of a major existential crisis.
At a high-end resort in the French Alps, a family of four go about their holiday, which involves eating, skiing and snuggling in matching thermals. It's a portrait of banality. Sure, there are squabbles. The kids (played by real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren) get cranky when they're hungry, and their parents, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), snipe a little, too, in tiny tendrils that stem from more fundamental frustrations. She thinks he works too much; he just wants to relax. But there's nothing to worry about. They're still a family, a unit.
On the second day of vacation, during an avalanche, a troubling decision is made. Ebba tries to rescue the children, but Tomas runs for his life. Nature punches nurture in the face, and for the rest of the film, the family try to recover from the blow. But trying doesn't always equal success. It's hard not to pick at a fresh scab.
Writer-director Ruben Ötlund excels at both the human scale and the biblically awesome, making great use of the mountains' vast, blank snow banks and vertiginous drops. All is menace. The sound design distorts the everyday in wonderfully grotesque ways. It amplifies a chairlift's grinding gears and an electric toothbrush's angry hum while Vivaldi's thundering "Summer" concerto booms in the background. The music choice may seem counterintuitive given all the snow in the film, but it's devastatingly effective. I began to flinch whenever it cropped up, with the same kind of Pavlovian response I had to the Wagner soundtrack in Melancholia.
There is also the matter of nightly bombings. The resort coordinates explosions meant to trigger avalanches in a controlled way that will smooth the slopes. The explosions create the sensation of living in a war zone, which, in a way, the family now is. Östlund chews on the idea that war erodes identity, exploring the differences between who a person thinks he is and who he actually is. He also examines how gender expectations affect the whole mess. The latter concern gives Force Majeure a kicky boost of energy, especially when Östlund introduces another couple for a second, more comical referendum on male-female relations.
The film's biggest laughs come when traditional gender roles are upended. When those roles seem to be restored, the men's chests practically inflate three sizes. They shouldn't get so comfortable, though: Östlund, a grim mischief-maker, is sharpening his stick, preparing for his next kill.