Ruben Östlund makes films the way sociologists devise thought experiments: by posing a hypothesis and thinking fully through its consequences. The Swedish director's previous feature, 2011's Play, follows a group of black teenagers in Gothenburg as they blithely coerce a trio of affluent white children to hand over their valuables. Involuntary, from 2009, is an anthology film about the lunacy of etiquette: In one segment, the host of a middle-class party badly injures himself after mishandling celebratory fireworks but opts to carry on entertaining rather than retreat to the hospital and spoil anyone's fun. In another, a man touched inappropriately by a friend while on holiday prefers to ignore the violation and not make a fuss. Force Majeure represents what is perhaps Östlund's most sophisticated thought experiment yet, at once provocative and wise. It is a penetrating study of that most ludicrous of social pretenses — masculinity, toxic and ubiquitous.
Force Majeure takes as its subject (and satirical target) a comfortably moneyed Swedish family — Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and a cherubic pair of fair-haired children — vacationing at a posh ski resort in the French Alps. One afternoon, dining merrily atop a mountain restaurant's patio, the family hears the distant crack of explosives, which resorts like these detonate routinely, Tomas assures everyone, to trigger controlled avalanches. But as an imposing gust of snow-smoke charges toward the terrace, that casual awe curdles into alarm, even terror.
It all happens in an instant. Ebba grabs hold of the kids. The kids wail for dad. And Tomas, reliable patriarch, sees the avalanche rise upon him and promptly runs away. Moments later, as the dust begins to settle, it becomes obvious that the supposed avalanche was in fact perfectly harmless. The diners saunter back to their tables, brushing themselves off, giggling with embarrassment. And Tomas does all he feels he can do: He returns to his family and proceeds as though nothing happened.
This sequence spans only a minute or two, but it has, as you might expect, seismic consequences, which are soon exacerbated when Tomas, shame gnawing at him, maintains he didn't run away at all. Now, Tomas, plainly, is a fool — a feeble, blubbering milquetoast and, above all else, a coward. But Östlund's objective is not merely to castigate a weak-willed man for failing to protect his family. Instead, Force Majeure interrogates the gendered expectations that define our social order. All of Östlund's films are founded on the same question: How would you react? As an experience in empathy, Force Majeure is particularly taxing. It invites us to ask how we, or perhaps how our loved ones, would behave given these circumstances, and we might not like the answers. (It would hardly be surprising if the film's implicit line of questioning sabotaged a few otherwise healthy relationships.) Östlund understands that so much of how we relate to one another is a charade, our roles collectively imposed — and he also understands that all it takes is an avalanche for all of that order to come crashing down around us.