In "Force Majeure," a family of four — mom, dad, daughter, son — sit down to lunch outside a swanky restaurant surrounded by snow-covered peaks in the French Alps.

Suddenly, an avalanche starts roaring down the mountain, heading toward the restaurant. The father bolts from the table, leaving the others behind as he runs toward safety.

The avalanche never reaches the restaurant, although a great fog of swirling snow clouds the air. When it has settled, the father returns to the table, acting like nothing has happened.

But it has. Over the course of a five-day vacation, the selfish action of Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) will trigger resentment, fear, disbelief and disillusionment among the other members of the family — wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli, in a portrayal both stretched and resilient), daughter Vera (Clara Wettergren) and young son Harry (Vincent Wettergren).

What was intended as a family bonding experience becomes a full-on psychodrama as Tomas at first refuses to acknowledge his cowardice, then faces it aghast, and eventually suffers a complete emotional breakdown, dragging his family into the abyss as well.

Writer-director Ruben Ostlund tracks this family disintegration with such quiet intensity that the immensity of the tragedy turns into comedy at times. How messed up can one situation be?

It helps that Ostlund lets his cameras capture and linger on the eerie otherworldliness of the remote ski resort, a juxtaposition of nature's grandeur and the somewhat bizarre technology — armies of snow plows, tinkering ski lefts, twinkling artificial lights — intent on taming that grandeur.

Tomas also gets to share his shame with others. He denies Ebba's account while at dinner with a couple of strangers (Karin Myrenberg and Brady Corbet, who tends to pop up in surprising places), then finally faces the truth with an old friend (Kristofer Hivju) and his young lover (Fanni Metelius). The latter couple also find themselves nipping at one another over who would do what in dire circumstances.

The film feints at taking an obvious way out, but to his greater glory Ostlund does something of a nail-biting back-flip at the end, turning the film toward Ebba and her own need to survive. The result is a film that runs you through the wringer and then hangs you out to dryly consider our most basic impulses, weaknesses and common ground.




Rated R for some language and brief nudity

Running time: 118 minutes

At the Detroit

Film Theatre

"Force Majeure" (R ) A father's moment of self-preserving panic while at a French ski resort triggers his family's near-disintegration in this powerful and intriguing film that questions our most basic impulses. (118 minutes) GRADE: A

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