Snow Balls

At the heart of most Hollywood films, from The Wizard of Oz to World War Z, is some perceived threat to the domestic tranquility of the nuclear family. Whether it’s a tsunami, invading aliens or a stampeding horde of zombies, the danger that rattles our cinematic daydreams is the impending chaos of social disintegration, and it typically befalls an unlikely hero (usually dad, sometimes mom) to suddenly acquire a spine and ward off the forces of evil. Such neat and handy acts of transference — family dysfunction is a bitch, let’s save the world instead — are the restorative fairy tales by which we live.

In Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund completely inverts the heroic formula of an imperiled family discovering salvation in the overcoming of disaster, resulting in a tight, precise portrait of bourgeois despair that is by turns hilarious and disturbingly itchy. A young, attractive, well-to-do Swedish family, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their kids, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren), are on a skiing vacation in the French Alps. As they are enjoying lunch on the veranda one day, a controlled avalanche, set off by explosives to prevent larger catastrophes, begins gaining momentum, creating a panic among the customers: Ebba jumps to protect the children, while Tomas snatches his cell phone from the table and runs like hell.

Disaster is averted; the avalanche was all sound and fury, signifying a cloud of snow that disperses slowly to reveal a family deserted by its presumed patriarch. Tomas returns, nervously, to the table, acting as though nothing happened, but both he and Ebba know the truth — he fled in terror, and whether that act reveals a survival instinct of the reptilian brain or, rather, some essential cowardice lurking in his character, the damage has been done. Expectations have been shattered, including Tomas’ own masculine expectations of himself as the protective head of the family.

Force Majeure plays out as one long aftermath of a single spontaneous decision, as husband and wife — joined on vacation by Tomas’ old friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and his 20-year-old girlfriend, Fanni (Fanni Metelius) — negotiate the meaning of what happened. The cinematography is gorgeous, with vast fields of snow and majestic peaks providing the background to a game of romantic brinksmanship, wherein one couple struggles to find equilibrium based on the revelation of suprising new information about each other. And, like avalanches, they find their own disasters hard to control. (Bijou Metro)