Vacations are weird. Packing a suitcase can become a re-evaluation of things you don’t normally think about, like the clothes you own. Is this the best dress shirt I have? I really don’t own a pair of flip flops? Your hotel room becomes a miniscule bubble of privacy from whatever foreign environment you’ve decided to drop into. The people you travel with become the only people you know within hundreds or thousands of miles in any given direction. If things are going well, vacations are wonderful—the highlight of your year, even—but expectations are tricky to negotiate, especially when you’ve just dumped a bunch of money on the idea of leasing a moment in paradise. That’s asking for trouble, not just of the hotel and restaurant staff, but of the people you’re traveling with. What if they fuck up your good time? What if—suddenly and in the middle of a strange place—you can’t recognize the person you thought you knew better than anyone else?
That’s the tempest-in-a-teapot premise of Force Majeure. A young, Swiss family of four are enjoying lunch together on an outdoor patio in the midst of their ski trip in the French Alps. Suddenly, a man-made avalanche starts cascading down the side of a mountain a few hundred yards away. At first, everyone marvels at the beauty of the thing—taking cell phone videos and pictures—but as it appears to get closer, people start to panic and Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) runs, leaving his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their children behind to fend for themselves. When the powder settles, everyone is fine. The danger, it turns out, was just an illusion, but the damage has already been done.
On paper, there are a lot of obvious similarities between Force Majeure and last year’s shot-in-Disneyland drama, Escape From Tomorrow. Both examine the idea of organized fun and what happens when that collides with reality. In Tomorrow, the father loses his job on the last day of their vacation and decides not to tell his wife, feigning normalcy in a totally not-normal environment. Things get ugly, but it’s mostly an internal conflict. Neither half of that marriage ever confronts the other and most of the drama gets worked out through surreal asides that trade on the iconography of Disney as much as anything else.
Force Majeure is a much talkier film, taking a page from fellow Swede, Ingmar Bergman and his magnum opus, Scenes From A Marriage. Tomas senses the tension between he and his wife almost immediately and while they address that something is off, he refuses to admit that he abandoned her and the kids. The initial sense is that he’s taking a free pass handed to him by Ebba, who doesn’t say what’s on her mind because she’s hoping her husband will just be honest with her and own what he did. They both know what’s wrong, but if she isn’t going to bring it up, neither is he. It’s the kind of cheating most couples do and like most relationships, it festers.
The great thing about the kind of tension built here is that it cuts both ways. It can be funny when it wants to be and deeply uncomfortable. In the early going, when Ebba finally mentions what happened at a dinner with friends, she tries to brush it off casually, just to get it out of her system. Of course, it doesn’t work, because Tomas doubles down on his denial, choosing to instead use his arms to pull himself free of the quicksand that’s already reaching for his neck. The loveliness of the scene is in how director Ruben Östlund and his actors teeter back and forth between the two ends of that tension-spectrum. Everyone at the table wants to laugh the event off—and they try their damnedest to do just that—but the more Tomas insists it didn’t happen, the more Ebba draws inward, allowing her curt, passive aggressive behavior to dominate the mood. It’s like watching a time-lapse of a rotting corpse.
The acting is some of the best I’ve seen all year, but it’s also nice to see the considerable filmmaking talents of Östlund extending beyond that. Like Manhattan, another “talky” movie, there are quite a few stunningly beautiful visual moments. The lunch scene is an obvious candidate, but my favorite moments often saw the camera creating a rhythm to scenes with long, continuous takes. Cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel’s camera moves over the perfect, untouched snow, just ahead of the family, allowing them to enter the frame, bobbing, back and forth, cutting imperfect lines on their way down and leaving the camera to lag behind, oblivious as any of the clouds in the sky. I’d have to watch it again, but those rhythms change as the dynamic of the tension changes. The movement in the frame becomes atonal. There’s a great scene where Ebba breaks away from the rest of the family for the day and rides a chairlift alone. The camera is locked on her face and the chairlifts descending the mountain in the background gradually quicken their pace. Just like the moment with the man-made avalanche, nothing is really happening, but it certainly feels like everything is about to fall apart.
There’s no pretentiousness to the film either. I know a Swedish film about the dissolution of a marriage sounds like the epitome of pretentiousness, but it’s really not. The film is too honest to get branded that way and not just when it comes to the nasty stuff. One of the best moments is when the family—zonked out from a long day of skiing—sleeps together on the same bed. They’re all on top of the covers, because none of them had the energy to crawl under (or the foresight to realize they were all going to fall asleep in the first place). When Tomas’ cell phone rings, he dreamily tells his wife he’s going to ignore it. They’re on a vacation away from work and he wants to respect that. But when she leaves the room to pee, he reaches over to the night stand and grabs the phone. She catches him, but in this instance they’re able to laugh about it. This lie doesn’t carry the same weight, not because it’s a cell phone vs. running from an avalanche, but because he doesn’t try to make her feel crazy by lying about it. The film gets that fights between married people might come from petty places, but they’re never as simple as all that.
In a way, this would make great double feature with Gone Girl (a long double feature…). Two immaculately filmed stories about the delicacy of people choosing to spend the rest of their lives together. And two of the best films of 2014.