Force Majeure explores marriage and masculinity

Force Majeure, a Swedish film directed by Ruben Ostlund, opens with a picture-perfect family—a father, a mother and two children, all bedecked in expensive-looking ski equipment—posing in front of a camera.  The family is commemorating a vacation to the French Alps that, over the course of this intermittently thoughtful movie, rapidly transforms into a marital crisis.

The trouble begins at an outdoor cafe, when a snowy avalanche suddenly appears to be hurtling toward the diners.  The father, Tomas (played with ashen-faced intensity by Johannes Kuhnke), grabs his iPhone and rushes to safety, leaving his wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and children, Vera (Clara Wettergren) and Harry (Vincent Wettergren), to fend for themselves.  The snow never reaches the cafe, and a sheepish Tomas soon rejoins the family, but the memory of his desertion hangs like a dark shadow over the rest of the film.

Tomas and Ebba argue heatedly about what happened during the avalanche, with Tomas insisting he stood his ground and protected the children.  Vera and Harry, sensing the tension between their parents, become increasingly rattled.  In the family’s hotel, a perplexed-looking custodian, who serves as both an audience surrogate and a source of much-needed comic relief, watches the drama unfold.

Force Majeure makes some incisive points about the shaky foundations of bourgeois masculinity.  Tomas and a fellow vacationer, Mats, played by the red-bearded Kristofer Hivju (Game of Thrones), suffer a parade of everyday humiliations—in one scene, a pretty blonde tells Tomas her friend thinks he’s the best-looking man in the room, only to return a minute later with the dispiriting news that the friend was actually thinking of someone else.  Tomas’ insecurity, as well as the smartphone he always keeps within arm’s reach, further exacerbates his dispute with Ebba.

As the film plods along, striking the same thematic chords over and over again, the increasingly pathetic Tomas and his unforgiving wife become exhausting company.  You long for the gruff charm of Hivju’s character, who disappears after a few promising scenes, and grow weary of director Ostlund’s relentless efforts to squeeze emotional poignancy into every shot.

Force Majeure recently secured Sweden’s pick for the Foreign Language Film Oscar, elbowing aside the uproarious We Are the Best, a crowd-pleaser about tween punk rockers in Stockholm.  The latter film is among the liveliest of the year.  This one, though punctuated by a few genuinely sublime moments (a sweeping landscape shot here, some evocative music there), is ultimately rather dull.

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