Force Majeure is the best foreign language film I've seen this year. It's one of the best films in any category I've seen this year. Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund's crisp, handsomely-presented study of the roles we play — gender roles, family roles — focuses on how we behave in emergencies. Are we hardwired to react in a certain way during a crisis? Are instinctive reactions a measure of a person's character? There's a lot going on in Ostlund's story of an attractive family on a skiing holiday.
The incident that sets everything off happens on the second day of the family's vacation at a French ski resort. While Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) enjoy lunch with their two children on a restaurant terrace, they witness the beginning of an avalanche. No big deal, controlled avalanches are set off routinely to minimize the chance for big, uncontrolled ones. But wait, this avalanche doesn't look controlled. And it appears to be … Holy shit, it's headed right towards the resort, the diners and the audience in the theater! The screen goes white, only to clear up a few seconds later.
Turns out it was just mist — "snow smoke" — caused by the controlled avalanche. When it clears we see Ebba with her arms wrapped around the kids. Tomas is absent, though, having ran away from the danger with his gloves and cell phone in his hand. He returns and at first everybody is simply relieved to be together and safe. Later, the questions begin.
Ostlund focuses his cameras on the machines of the resort, highlighting the routines that keep it working. He focuses on the family — grooming, sleeping, peeing — highlighting the routines that keep them functioning as a biological unit. Mostly, he focuses on Ebba and Tomas trying to come to terms with what happened during the faux disaster. This isn't a grim study. There's plenty of humor, the kind that comes from watching one cringe-inducing moment after another. And Tomas, poor Tomas, is usually the one squirming the most. Ostlund resists the urge to be flat-out mean to the man, but he certainly is relentless.
Remember the controversy over Jackie Kennedy when her husband was assassinated in Dallas? In a 1963 article about the Zapruder film, Life magazine stated that when the shots hit the motorcade, Mrs. Kennedy “climbed onto the trunk,” presumably trying to escape. To this day, some people are angered at the very idea that the First Lady might have attempted to flee from danger. Hop on the Internet and read the chorus of experts who maintain that whatever might have happened, Jackie wasn't yella!
I thought about that as I watched Tomas trying to piece together his shattered self-esteem. Then I remembered an incident from my own life. While biking a dirt path in the bayou with my best pal years ago, my front tire slid on a gravelly spot and I went flying off the bicycle. I hit the ground hard and broke my collarbone and a bunch of ribs, but my main concern wasn't the injuries. I was worried that my best friend would think I was chicken because I screamed before I hit the ground. In my head, hollering on impact was fine, but screaming before impact meant that I was a coward.
Force Majeure is so effectively presented that it stirred those memories while still keeping me firmly involved in the story. I love movies that can do things like that.
The end of the film isn't as sleek as what comes before. There are two unusual incidents, both of which seem contrived to wrap things up meaningfully. Neither occurrence tarnishes the film. They're just more than was needed. Ostlund's production raises interesting questions and follows up in an engaging and intriguing fashion. That's enough for me. Providing resolution, or at least keeping the conversation going, is up to the audience.