Review: Force Majeure

Devastatingly powerful dissection of the impending collapse of a marriage. A disaster of the heart.

The premise behind Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund’s astonishing Force Majeure is deceptively simple, spinning on an admittedly visually stunning occurrence. An attractive young couple Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) are holidaying in the French Alps with their children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren). While enjoying a scenic lunch on the deck of their majestic hotel, a controlled explosion appears to go awry. As a great wall of snow hurtles towards them, sudden panic grips the group.

Ebba’s immediate reaction is to protect Harry and Vera, gripping them close and hunkering down in a desperate attempt to survive the approaching avalanche. Tomas, on the other hand, flees for his life, leaving the rest of his family to fend for themselves.

While the disaster turns out to be an uncomfortably near miss, the psychological damage has already been inflicted. Ostlund painstakingly follows the unfurling emotional aftermath in a series of impeccably well-judged set pieces as the marriage begins to come apart at the seams. Despite this troubled scenario, his script is shot through with glorious vein of darkly comic mischief.

Both Kuhnke and Kongsli put in incredible performances, bearing the majority of the dramatic heavy lifting between them, with the simmering anger and anguish of their complex emotional responses threatening to boil over, as keenly felt by poor Harry and Vera. Never has brushing your teeth seemed such a loaded, emotionally fraught affair.

As with Kubrick’s The Shining, not a shot is wasted in cranking up the tension. Fredrik Wenzel’s glacially compelling cinematography showcases both the austere beauty of the Alps, half tantalising, half terrifying, and the striking hotel’s series of replica Scandinavian wood corridors, setting the scene for razor sharp set pieces, occasionally overlooked by a silently voyeuristic cleaner. With every canon sounded, as more drifts are cleared, there’s a palpable sense of imminent eruption.

Tomas is steadfast in his insistence that he did not run, that Ebba’ recollection is mistaken. Of course, the audience saw exactly how it played out, and his denial, most likely wilful, is eventually exposed in one of cinema’s most excruciating dinner party scenes, as they are joined by another couple played by Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju and his much younger girlfriend Fanny (Fanni Metelius). Pretty soon, the widening rift spreads to their relationship too.

Scoring the Jury Price at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, Ostlund’s Force Majeure is a powerful dissection of the innate strengths and weaknesses of human nature that’s easily my favourite foreign language film of the year so far, and without doubt makes my top five full stop.

Stephen A Russell