An unassuming Swedish middle class family head to the French Alps for a skiing holiday – the most bog-standardly bland kind of middle class family you can imagine. At the start, they snake down the slopes together, crossing paths in a shot that shows them as an apparently well-oiled machine, yet the thought is never far from your mind that a collision is inevitable as the swerves increase and decrease in size.
It’s a subtle suggestion of the impending fallout of the next day’s events – as they sit for lunch at the resort, a controlled avalanche comes dangerously close to ending their tedious lives. Tomas, the patriarch, grabs his phone and bolts, leaving wife Ebba and their two kids to bite the dust. But the avalanche stops short, leaving an air of confusion and shock as to what just happened.
From this moment writer/director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure takes us on a bizarre emotional rollercoaster as the family tries to make sense of what happened, with a keen focus on patriarchal responsibility vs. that animal survivalist instinct. Tomas tries to reconcile his guilt while Ebba tries to hold the family together in a series of increasingly intense moments that form an astutely sharp picture with an incredibly black comedic heart beating at its core.
It’s this comedy that adds to the intelligence of the piece. As Tomas’ masculinity is increasingly called into question, we soon begin to realise how ridiculous our perceptions of gender roles within the family (and society as a whole) actually are. As we try to reconcile our animal instinct with our social norms, we find that the two rarely intertwine and any attempt to do so directly raises questions about our own nature that we would rather not answer. For both Tomas and Ebba have repressed inadequacies that come to light in this narrow escape and each of them come about in entertaining ways that begins to bleed into their circle of friends.
Östlund’s direction is spot on, finding a perfect balance between comedy and drama that propels the story on a most unexpected trajectory without ever going completely over the top. Its subtlety is its triumph, contrasting the banality of social structures with the exterior wilderness that could change everything in the blink of an eye and makes the family’s behaviour all the more ridiculous.
To divulge the film’s events would be to spoil this oddball tale that is genuinely like nothing you’ve seen before. It’s a highly intelligent twist on the standard man faces masculine inadequacy story that in less skilled hands would devolve into a series of dick jokes and denigrating sexism. But if that’s more your sort of thing, Hot Tub Time Machine 2 is also out this week…