Perhaps Ruben Östlund's most sophisticated thought experiment yet, the provocative and wise Force Majeure is a penetrating study of that most ludicrous of social pretenses — masculinity, toxic and ubiquitous. Östlund takes as his 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 in the French Alps.
Dining merrily atop a mountain restaurant's patio, the family hears the distant crack of explosives and then sees what might be an avalanche. Ebba grabs hold of the kids. The kids wail for dad. And Tomas, reliable patriarch, runs away. Moments later, as the dust begins to settle, it becomes obvious that the supposed avalanche was perfectly harmless. The diners saunter back to their tables, 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 -- soon exacerbated when Tomas, shame gnawing at him, maintains that 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? Östlund understands that so much of how we relate to one another is a charade, our roles collectively imposed -- and that all it takes is an avalanche for that order to come crashing down.