A clever visual conceit sustains Force Majeure, writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s squirmy exploration of masculinity come undone. In essence this is a series of family portraits. Some are literal – as of the opening shot of a vacationing Swedish family posing atop the French Alps in their ski getup – but most are beautifully candid, as when Ostlund’s camera gathers them as a group while they swerve down a slope or nap in a pile on the hotel bed.
You could trace the dissolution of this nuclear unit through the narrative – particularly after an experience with an avalanche brings out the worst in the father (Johannes Kuhnke) – but their demise is also chronicled in the compositions. Note that after the avalanche, the father, mother (Lisa Loven Kongsli), daughter (Clara Wettergren) and son (Vincent Wettergren) rarely appear together in the same frame. Instead, they’re often broken into subgroups or – in one of my favorite images – slowly dragged by a ski rope, one by one, isolated and alone, across the screen.
We do get another group family portrait in a highly emotional climax, which I won’t spoil here. Force Majeure would have ended quite powerfully with this image, to my mind, yet it proceeds with a handful of scenes that send conflicting signals. One involves a foggy “test” on the slopes, while the other puts the mother’s behavior under the microscope. Both left me feeling less like I’d been watching a family in turmoil and more liked I’d been watching Ostlund try his hand at one of Michael Haneke’s funny games. Force Majeure is a kicker, but I could have used one or two less kicks.