‘Force Majeure’ is unbearably tense

In many other movies, an avalanche would be the climax. The hero, at the end of his rope, hanging over some infinitely black cavern, would be set upon by relentless waves of snow and survival would become a fleeting hope. In “Force Majeure,” the avalanche is a dud, but the disaster it ultimately leads is unbearably real.

Tomas (Johannes Kunke, “The Inheritance”), his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli, “The Orheim Company”) and their children, Harry (Vincent Wettergren) and Vera (Clara Wettergren), take a vacation to a ski resort in the Alps. During lunch one day, an avalanche comes barreling toward their restaurant, and Tomas bolts, leaving his family behind. As it turns out, the avalanche was controlled, but, now, Ebba and the kids know just where Tomas’ priorities lie.

Even before the avalanche hits, it’s clear that Tomas is distant. He’s a workaholic who has just five days in a working year to spend with his family. Ebba has filled in all the empty spaces he’s left behind, and Tomas saving himself over his family was just a confirmation of what she already knew: Tomas is not a father.

Therein lies the heart of the movie — what it means to be a parent and what it means to be a man. Tomas’ constant denial of his running away is where the tension lies. Even through constant and beautifully tense confrontations, Tomas contends that he didn’t run away. Aided by wonderfully orchestrated long shots and a characteristic quietude, “Force Majeure” wrings torrents of marital discontent and tension out of every shot.

That being said, director Ruben Ostlund’s symbolism is overbearing. As Tomas and Ebba’s relationship crumbles, fog engulfs the resort while avalanche cannons rumble underneath it all. But he’s so confident in his vision, Kunke, Kongsli and the Wettergrens so assured in their performances, that when these symbols collide it feels natural.

The real avalanche here is Tomas’ infinitely fragile masculinity. To watch him willfully deny and, by extension, tear their life to shreds is oftentimes impossible to watch. The viewer also gets the sense that Tomas has known who he is as a parent and a man all along. So why is he lying to himself? To his family? The tension here is not because someone might get hurt; it’s that, without a doubt, everyone will. It’s just a question of when.