There’s zero humor to be found in the plot description of Ruben Ostlund’s wickedly entertaining and painfully funny Force Majeure, scare little that indicates that the family-centric Swedish feature will be amusing (even a little bit, even at all) to its audience. After all, what about “family on ski vacation narrowly avoids tragedy and then struggles to deal with the fallout” sounds like it could be anything less than dark and dire? But Ostlund uses his dramatic-sounding story to balance an extremely relatable tale of domestic tensions and personal failures, all played for laughs that come so rapidly and wisely that viewers may find it difficult to catch their breath.
Set at a fancy ski resort, the kind that is quite literally nestled into the crook of a mountain and the type that boasts any number of high-class restaurants and its very own nightclub, Force Majeure follows a young family struggling with totally normal issues, lingering resentments that are about to burst forth thanks to a most improbable event. While Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) is utterly dedicated to her two kids – no mention is ever made of a career outside the home – her husband Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) is less interested in matters of domesticity. The vacation is meant as a way for the family to reconnect for five days, with Ebba making it clear to actual strangers that it’s also a time for Tomas to unplug from everything else (his constantly buzzing phone doesn’t make that an easy demand). Everything seems to be going fairly well, almost pleasingly boring, until a controlled avalanche races towards the family as they eat lunch on a sunny deck.
It’s that avalanche that’s the force majeure of the title – a “superior force,” an “unavoidable accident” – but it sets in motion something much more dangerous. As the tide of snow rushes down the mountain, Ebba’s instincts kick in, and she grabs both kids in an attempt to shield them from what may come. Tomas grabs his gloves and phone and makes a break for it. The pair later remember the incident quite differently – the version portrayed on the screen matches Ebba’s version of events, but Ostlund isn’t afraid of playing with perception here – and that discord overshadows the rest of their vacation.
This may not sound funny, but Ostlund’s film is so finely observed and so intentionally light that black humor and a vibrant spirit diffuse the drama of the situation, and everything that would otherwise feel perilous and emotional (even massive crying jags) is instead deeply funny. Force Majeure is funny because it’s true, and the arguments that Ebba and Tomas continually cycle through (over and over again) aren’t unique to them or their outsized situation. They are, however, played for laughs, and do they ever work.
Kongsli gets the heavy lifting here, and she delivers big time, particularly when it comes time to share the story with a pair of the couple’s friends, handily zipping through a monologue that’s riveting, wrenching and somehow still amusing. She and Kuhnke have a strong and believable chemistry, and when they set about bickering, they do it with ease and honesty. The pair’s children – played by real-life siblings Clara Wettergren and Vincent Wettergren – aren’t immune to the tension around them, and they frequently run the full gamut of emotions in response to their parents’ bad behavior (from tantrums to crying fits), but both Wettergrens are interestingly understated and just the right amount of heartbreaking.
Ostlund peppers the production with plenty of smaller moments, relatable looks at a relatively average family vacation that serve the dual purpose of helping us feel better acquainted with our characters and pacing out the humor in a satisfying way. The family skis, they eat, they nap, they brush their teeth, they ride the ski lifts, and as those normal activities and interactions shift and change, so too does the story (if there’s a better set of scenes that take place in a crowded bathroom this year, I don’t want to see them). Setting the film in a hotel is a witty and smart choice by Ostlund, driving home the crackling undercurrent of surveillance and lack of personal privacy that pervades the film. Ebba and Tomas just might be able to work this thing out, if only they could be alone for a minute or two (the inclusion of a stone-faced maintenance worker who continually observes the pair in various states of disarray is a weird, hilarious inclusion in the film, and serves to anchor a number of amusing callbacks), but watching them hack away at it is enough to set this film apart as one to watch (and fast).
The Upside: Finely observed, uproariously funny, wickedly wise, remarkably relatable, with a big avalanche sequence to boot.
The Downside: Small lags in its narrative temporarily weigh it down and the final act features at least three scenes that would be better suited for its final shot.
On the Side: Sweden has already chosen the film to be its entry for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign-Language Film section. Ostlund’s Involuntary was previously picked as the country’s candidate in 2009, but did not make it through to the final nomination round.