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'Force Majeure'

Marriage is a passive-aggressive minefield in 'Force Majeure'
COLD SNAPS: A false-alarm avalanche leads a married couple to passive-aggressively turn the screws on each other in 'Force Majeure.'

The keenly titled Force Majeure is about one of those little instances of cowardice that can end a military career—or a marriage—in a matter of seconds.

This Swedish film is slippery and quite unexpectedly ticklish. The blank-faced satire keeps you at arm's length; it breaks up the short-storyish tale (Alice Munro is what it reminded me of most) with long blackouts and whiteouts. A repeated sinister phrase of accordion music introduces every chapter.

It's set at a high-middle class French Alps ski resort where a Swedish family of four settles in for a week. Tomas (Johannes Kunke) is the overbooked, cowed dad. His spouse is Ebba (Lisa Loven Kunke), an apparently even-tempered woman with a slightly merciless mouth. (In Strindberg terms, Ebba is The Stronger; we see her back when she's changing her clothes, and she has muscles like a lioness.) The kids are mildly bratty, but not rude. They're clean and unthreatening. And from 10 feet away, the family is of such perfection that they might have been sold by Ikea to accessorize the furniture.

Ostlund starts to chill us a little by emphasizing what an alien landscape the mountain top is; in one night scene he creates a CG simulation of the peaks just distant enough that we aren't quite sure if we're in virtual reality or not—only the brittle, artificial twinkle of the stars is what tips us off. Ostlund used to make ski documentaries, Warren Miller-wise; rare to see an enthusiast make a favorite sport seem so uncanny. The hills boom with avalanche guns, a near constant barrage at night. As if cavalry followed the artillery, the hillsides then crawl with sinister, extraterrestrial-looking vehicles, beeping and flashing their lights as they groom the snow. The empty chairs in the ski-lift speed past the camera with the swish of a saber cut. In the lodge, too-small rooms yield to an atrium paneled in a jaundiced blonde wood. You have to go outside the room to talk so the kids don't hear, but these hallways allow about as much privacy as a Panopticon. There's a running joke about a swarthy handyman there, who seems to be keeping a special, skeptical eye on the family as their meltdown begins.

During an outdoor lunch, a triggered avalanche gets out of control and seemed to be heading right for the family's cafe table. Father Tomas takes the time-honored "every man for himself" approach, stopping to scoop up his gloves and his phone before he runs for it. When the deadly wave of snow turns out to be just a blast of fog from the snow-cliff falling, Ebba feels betrayed by her husband. Ebba is too nice a person to be confrontational at first, so she takes a passive-aggressive approach to try to get her man to talk about it. He denies it. And as the vacation continues, she recruits old friends who came along to join the trip, to help her talk out the incident. One is Tomas' long time chum (Kristofer Hivju, who is as good as Jeff Daniels at mixing country heartiness and fatuousness). The other is his pal, a kinky, disheveled girlfriend named Fanny (Fanny Metelius) who is half his age. All of this reasonableness makes the quarrel significantly worse. It's as if all it took was a strong gust of cold air to split up this family. Ostlund refers to the sinking of the SS Estonia, 20 years ago this fall, as an example of how civilized people forget their duties, either in a ferry disaster or storm-wracked marriage. But with great slyness, this anti-comedy goes broader to examine how couples are always looking for an advantage over one another—how after a certain time, husbands and wives are always groping for a weapon. Force Majeure's title comes from a legal phrase that isn't on a marriage certificate but ought to be; unlike Gone Girl, this icy comedy will make you feel better about your own menage.

Force Majeure

118 MIN., R


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