Having just returned from a family skiing holiday, Swedish film Force Majeure (15) **** was an eye-opening vision of what might have been.
The movie, directed by former competitive skier Ruben Ostlund, basically depicts the worst ski holiday ever, and yet it’s probably also the best film ever made about a ski resort – yes, even better than the first Hot Tub Time Machine.
A winner at last year’s Cannes and Best Film at the Swedish Oscars, I have seen it billed in some quarters as a comedy and, though I like to think I have an adaptable sense of humour, I couldn’t find many laughs buried under the snow here. It is, however, an impressive, cringing depiction of a marriage in crisis, a precariousness depicted by chairlifts and cable cars swinging in the Alpine breezes.
In the film’s key scene, a beautiful young Swedish family are having lunch on the terrace of a mountain-top restaurant in a plush French resort. An explosion echoes around the valley as a controlled avalanche is set off, a dramatic sight the diners begin to film on their mobile phones.
Quickly, though, it becomes clear the avalanche is heading right towards them all, sparking screams of panic. We see the mother grab her two kids and protect them on the ground. Meanwhile, the husband (Johannes Kuhnke) runs off.
When the snowy debris settles, it’s clear the avalanche has just missed the terrace and, eerily, the diners return to their tables. The husband comes back and the family resume their meal.
It’s a spectacular, unforgettable scene, masterfully shot, and nothing is the same after it. The wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and the two children, Harry and Vera, are numb at first but then their anger at the husband’s cowardly, selfish reaction begins to crack through. He himself attempts to deny his abandonment, leading to a very awkward dinner with friends later that same night.
Director Ostlund, who began his career making ski movies, lets his story unfold in steady, beautiful shots of the mountains, the clouds, the piste-bashing machines lighting up the darkness. We become aware of the nightmare precipice between man and nature, this ski resort perched amid the mighty mountains, the fickleness of the weather.
Such atmospheric pressure is exerted on this marriage that it cracks open with shocking rawness. Layers are peeled away, literally so as the piles of ski stuff come off – hats, goggles, helmets, skis and poles and those awful-to-walk-in ski boots.
Both mother and father experience their own crises, the husband in particular finding his masculinity pushed to breaking point. Ostlund’s camera just stares, unflinching, piercingly observational, surveying the emotional wreckage but always hopeful of pulling something positive out of the powder and fog.