In the opening scene of “Force Majeure,” a family poses for a resort photographer as they begin their skiing vacation in the Alps. Everybody acts happy, and the pictures look really cute.
From that point on, this movie does everything in its power to ruin that image. But this Swedish film isn’t predictable about how it does this — instead, it sneaks up on you with off-kilter humor and tense, carefully calibrated conversations.
At the crux of the film is an incident. The members of the family — husband Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two young children — are pausing in their winter getaway for lunch outdoors at the ski lodge. The resort conducts controlled avalanches, which explains the booming sound that reverberates day and night.
Except this avalanche starts heading for the lodge, and the people on the lunch deck panic. Tomas grabs his smart phone (he’s going to pay for that later) and runs indoors, leaving the wife and kids to fend for themselves.
When the avalanche proves to be an alarming but harmless cloud of snow-dust, he sheepishly returns. But there are some long silences, burning glances, and drunken accusations waiting in the next few days. Two friends, visiting the family, join in the fun.
Writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s conception of the movie is ingenious. He keeps a certain Scandinavian distance from most scenes, even when people are breaking down in sobs or conducting full-volume arguments. That distance is where the dry humor comes out of the situation.
The film also looks and sounds impeccable. Yes, sounds: the odd humming noises and persistent rumbling of the avalanche detonations are like the strains in the marriage made audible.
The effect of the avalanche, and Tomas’ refusal to acknowledge his terror, seem to have devastating effects. But the interesting thing about “Force Majeure” (the movie borrows the French term that sometimes gets translated as “act of God”) is the sly suggestion that maybe this event could have a liberating effect on the family.
In the curious but wonderful final sequence, this might be what’s happening. At some point, everybody’s problems are laid bare, and there’s nothing left to do but walk on into the future.
“Force Majeure” (three and a half stars)
A slyly witty dissection of a family on vacation in the Alps: After a scary incident that reveals character issues, a string of burning glances and drunken accusations ensue. This film by director Ruben Ostlund feels very original, and it’s beautifully filmed. In Swedish, with English subtitles.
Rating: R, for nudity, language
Showing: Seven Gables