Our preconceived notions of gender roles are given a harsh bit of scrutiny in Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s bracing, darkly satirical “Force Majeure.” Focusing on a family on holiday at a ski resort in the French Alps, the films deftly morphs into an uncomfortably funny portrait of a marriage in crisis.
At first glance, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and their two children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren) are a picture-perfect family. Tomas has been consumed with work, and the idea is to spend some quality time together. But the vacation takes a turn on the second day, after a single incident threatens to tear it all apart.
While the family sits having lunch, the resort sets off a routine controlled avalanche, but something appears to go wrong. The avalanche gets out of control, and the deluge of snow looks about to crash into the patio restaurant where the family sits helplessly. The crowd’s alarm turns to panic, and Ebba shields their children. Tomas’ response on the other hand, is to grab his phone and flee, abandoning his wife and children to fend for themselves.
Of course, it turns out the avalanche was a false alarm, and when the dust clears Tomas is left to sheepishly return to the table. The couple try to move on from the incident, but the damage has been done: Ebba can’t help but see her husband in a new, less than flattering light. As they’re joined at the resort by Tomas’ friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju, “Game of Thrones”) and his much-younger girlfriend, the crisis has rippling effects, inspiring a bit of disharmony in that couple’s relationship as well.
Östlund’s direction suggests Michael Haneke, but with far more sympathy for his characters. He asks us to consider whether a split-second, instinctual reaction is a fair barometer to judge a person’s true feelings. As Tomas sees his role as protector usurped, his fragile sense of masculinity is threatened. We all would love to believe that we'd behave selflessly in a time of crisis, but until that moment comes, how can you know for sure? Raising questions about gender roles, responsibility and fatherhood the awkwardly hilarious “Force Majeure” is bound to leave its audience having some uncomfortable date night conversations.