Force Majeure

Plays at Cinematheque until Feb 14

I can’t decide if Force Majeure is a perfect date movie, or the worst date movie of all time. On one hand, it’s the type of film that will inevitably spurn a lively discussion afterward. On the other hand, the subject of that discussion could devastate a precarious romantic mood.

A pitch-black comedy blanketed in pure white snow, Force Majeure opens at a ski resort atop the scenic French alps. A typical alpine family vacation is in progress, including Mother, Father, Brother and Sister. They’d be a stereotypical nuclear family if they weren’t speaking subtitled Swedish.

While eating lunch on a picturesque patio balcony, they witness an avalanche. At first the family laughs, pulling out their phones for selfies. But soon, the wall of snow consumes the patio in a white cloud. Carefree laughs become screams of horror. Before the whiteout, the father selfishly abandons his terrified family to run to safety. The cloud of white lifts. It’s a false alarm, and everyone’s fine. The patio calms and the Father must slink back to the table.

The remainder of the film deals with the family’s reaction to this event: this betrayal, this failure. Writer/director Ruben Östlund keeps camera movement to a minimum, forcing the audience to sit and squirm as the ensuing disaster unfolds. The entire cast is remarkable, including the unusually adroit child actors. Even when people are smiling, an air of impending dread hangs over the film. The tone is immediately reminiscent of the finest work of such filmmakers as Michael Haneke (Funny Games, The White Ribbon) and Todd Solondz (Dark Horse, Life During Wartime).

What would you do if you were stuck in the husband’s inevitable shoes (or, in this case, ski boots?) Or the wife’s? How would your life proceed after this scarring reveal? Don’t be so sure of your answer. It’s hardly light entertainment, but Force Majeure is one of the smartest, most thought-provoking films of the year.

Published in Volume 69, Number 18 of The Uniter (January 28, 2015)

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