'Force Majeure' (R)

They’re such the perfect photo-ready family — handsome husband, attractive wife, appealing young children — that the opening scene of Force Majeure introduces them actually being photographed at a posh French Alps ski resort.

The family doesn’t know it but, as revealed in this shrewd, bitingly comic and psychologically astute film, a prize winner at Cannes, that instant is fated to be one of their last uncomplicated moments. Their life is going to change not because of any catastrophe but because of the threat of one.

As adroitly written and directed by Sweden’s Ruben Ostlund, Force Majeure is a precise film about an out-of-control situation. Ostlund, whose previous films had more impact in Europe than here, has seized on the opportunity provided by a subtly contrived situation to raise provocative questions about men and women and the power and pitfalls of gender stereotypes in wreaking havoc in a marriage.

Set at Les Arcs, a stunning Alps locale that Ostlund has tweaked through CG manipulation to look even more magnificent, Force Majeure plays out over a five-day vacation that begins in a deceptively conventional way.

Meet Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), a Swedish Type A personality who can’t live without checking his phone; his sympathetic wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli); and their children, Vera and Harry (real-life siblings Clara and Vincent Wettergren). Tomas works so hard, Ebba tells a friend, that vacations like this are the only times he allows himself to relax.

That relaxation very much includes family skiing, and one of the distinct pleasures of Force Majeure is the impeccable look it’s been given by Fredrik Wenzel’s cinematography. Director Ostlund, as it turns out, began his career directing ski films, and he adds his own strong sense of how to bring out the alien landscape aspects of this half-natural, half-manufactured world.

Then comes a casual brunch at the resort’s topmost terrace where the family has gathered on Day Two. As everyone sits chitchatting near the restaurant’s edge, Ebba notices a wave of snow headed their way. “It’s a controlled avalanche,” replies Tomas confidently. But Ebba says, “It doesn’t look controlled to me.”

She has a point. As wide as the length of a football field, photographed in British Columbia and composited into the frame with the aid of green-screen technology, this avalanche is a convincing wall of snow headed for trouble. Once the snow mist dissipates, however, several things become clear: The snow has stopped barely short of the restaurant, and while Ebba has stayed to protect her children, husband Tomas has fled the scene.

This potent situation is the essence of Force Majeure, and though initially no one wants to talk about it, the delicate way the resulting change in family dynamic plays out is immediately apparent. “You seem irritated,” Tomas asks tentatively soon after he returns, and Ebba’s reply is the brisk, “Should I be?”

What happens over the next few days as husband and wife share dinners with people they know is the emergence of a barrier between them that wasn’t there before. This isn’t just because of what Tomas has done but because, in his discomfort, he can’t bring himself to acknowledge his actions, a prevarication that infuriates Ebba even more.

But while much of Tomas’ painful evasiveness is played for humor, the laughter tends to stick in our throats. The question of how men should behave and what happens when they don’t live up to expectations turns out to be a toxic one. The pernicious effects of gender stereotypes infect everything and lead both partners to question the very basis of their relationship.

Force Majeure‘s excellent leads Kuhnke and Kongsli are well known in Sweden but not in this country, which adds to the film’s verisimilitude for American audiences, making it seem like we are watching an all-too-true story unfold.

Finally, however, this is a director’s film, and Ostlund knows precisely the effects he is after. This filmmaker is in control at each and every moment, and does he ever know what he is doing.

Cast: Johannes Bah Kuhnke, Lisa Loven Kongsli, Clara Wettergren, Vincent Wettergren, Kristofer Hivju.

Writer-director: Ruben Ostlund.

A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 118 minutes. In Swedish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, brief nudity. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.

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