If there were ever a film to benefit from its audience
knowing little about it ahead of time, it would be Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure. All I knew was that it
had won a major award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival; now I know why.
Writer-director Östlund introduces us to a seemingly-perfect Swedish family at
the outset of a week-long vacation at a French ski resort, and then proceeds to
dismantle this picture-postcard experience, day by day. Let others expand upon
the premise and provide you with spoilers; that’s all you’re going to learn
What I can say is
that the filmmaker establishes and maintains an incredible sense of unease. The
suspense is all the more effective because so much of the story plays out in
silence, against the pristine backdrop of a luxury hotel in the beautiful
French Alps. After a while, we start to wonder if every person who steps into
frame, or every mundane object we see, is intended to present a threat. Alfred
Hitchcock famously found menace in the ordinary; Östlund exploits that idea
The performances are spot-on. Johannes Bah Kuhnke plays the
handsome, successful businessman and Lisa Loven Kongsli his beautiful wife,
whose relationship is shaken by a brief but telling event at the resort. After
that moment, nothing can be the same. The actors skillfully reflect the subtle,
often unspoken emotional undercurrent that puts their relationship at risk. (It
helps that the actors were unfamiliar to me, as they will be to most Americans;
they bring no baggage or familiarity from other parts they’ve played.)
Many people are
describing Force Majeure as a black
comedy, and while I don’t completely disagree, I think the label is misleading.
This is a fundamentally serious film laced with a sharp edge of social satire. Östlund
makes fun of bourgeois success and complacency, as well as the conventional
roles that women and especially men are expected to fulfill in our society.
(The couple’s two kids escape relatively unscathed.) He manages to skewer his
targets without bludgeoning them to death.
But perhaps his
greatest achievement is crafting a film that is utterly unpredictable. We never
know what’s going to happen next. Will it be something terrible, something
risible, or something that is merely absurd? Force Majeure is a masterful piece of work, one of the best films
I’ve seen all year.