Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund puts marriage under a squirm-inducing microscope in “Force Majeure,” a stylish, acutely observant psychodrama that changes tone so deftly between social comedy of manners and mournful meditation on gender roles that the viewer isn’t quite sure whether to laugh or sigh.
Like an episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” shot through with Scandinavian austerity — or “Scenes From a Marriage” on skis — this witty, thoughtful, spectacularly conceived movie delivers on the promises made by the far more glib and superficial “Gone Girl.” Under Ostlund’s watchful eye and superb control, the characters of “Force Majeure” aren’t monsters or self-made media darlings, but recognizable people, albeit ones whose human foibles are thrown into startlingly sharp relief, both metaphorically and literally.
Filmed against the majestic peaks of the Les Arcs ski resort in the French Alps, “Force Majeure” often transpires in near white-out conditions, all the better for the story’s protagonists to be seen starkly, if not always flatteringly. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), a busy Swedish businessman, has come to France for five days of skiing with his beautiful wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two attractive, spoiled children. From the very first moment, when a photographer takes an impromptu family portrait on the slopes, the family looks picture-perfect.
But on the second day of their vacation, events transpire to crack that facade, eliciting shame and doubt in Tomas and Ebba that build into an ever-widening cascade of unspoken expectations, wounded pride, grievous disappointments and irrevocably changed ideas of themselves and each other.
“Force Majeure” is so intricately constructed, so skillfully planned and executed, that it would be supremely unfair to even hint at how the narrative unfolds. Structuring his story into day-long chapters, Ostlund maintains a scrupulous air of suspense, navigating the dips and turns in Tomas and Ebba’s relationship — as well as the way their situation affects two couples they befriend at the resort — in carefully calibrated exchanges on the slopes, in the couple’s hotel room or in furtive exchanges in the hallway. One of the funniest such encounters occurs over dinner with Mats (Kristofer Hivju) and Fanny (Fanni Metelius), who act as both jury and mirror as Tomas and Ebba relate their competing versions of their experience, as well as its implications.
Most of that fallout has to do with gender roles, especially as they intersect with parenting, potency, self-sacrifice and reflexive physical courage. But Ostlund is too wise to limit “Force Majeure” to mere sociology: With a seamless mix of crystalline digital cinematography and magnificent computer-generated effects, he situates his protagonists within a universe as vast, forbidding and indifferent as the starscape of “Interstellar,” but with far more familiar stakes.
Whether he’s filming someone alone on a ski lift while empty chairs swing by in ghostly uniformity, happening upon a group of half-naked men at an alpha-male drinking party, barely glimpsing two figures as they make their way out of a snowy mist or capturing the breathtaking cataclysm at the film’s center, Ostlund confidently leads viewers to question their own shaky notions of agency, control and potency. Even after Tomas and Ebba have figured a way out from under the microscope, “Force Majeure” leaves the audience squirming — in all the very best ways.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema, AMC Lowes Shirlington 7 and Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains some profanity and brief nudity. In Swedish and English with subtitles. 118 minutes.