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 from me.
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 with cunning.
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.