Opens Fri., Nov. 21 at Seven Gables and SIFF Cinema Uptown. Rated R. 118 minutes.
On vacation in the French Alps, Tomas, Ebba, and their two young kids are a sleek, modern family seemingly stepped out of an iPhone 6 ad. They’ve booked a week at a trendy ski resort to escape the pressures back home in Sweden. (Tomas has difficulty ignoring work calls on his iPhone.) Things are going well until a fateful lunch on a sunny balcony overlooking the slopes. Suddenly, triggered by one of the regular avalanche-control blasts that punctuate the film, a cloud of snow overwhelms the shrieking, terrified diners. But this isn’t your usual natural-disaster flick: The frame goes white as we hear sounds of chaos and confusion; then everyone realizes that only a light dusting of snow has fallen on their fettuccine alfredo. After those few seconds of panic, there’s laughter all around. Thank God we’ve survived; now let’s not talk about it.
Ruben Ostlund’s sly, unsettling study of marital dissolution is what happens when people talk about it. Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) can’t let go of the fact that Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) grabbed his phone and abandoned the family in the face of possible doom. At first he denies her accusations (enabled by friends and red wine), but the greater damage is caused by his slow acquiescence. “I’m the victim, too,” he later sobs, “the victim of my own instincts!” Copping to his cowardice only makes him seem more pathetic to Ebba, who begins re-evaluating the whole basis of their marriage. If not for the sake of their kids (played by actual siblings), what’s the point in staying together? And if you can’t trust your partner with your kids’ survival, what’s the point of even having them? The couple has a bearded friend (Game of Thrones’ Kristofer Hivju) who uncomfortably witnesses Ebba’s dinner-party denunciations. He diplomatically tries to rationalize Tomas’ lapse in sociobiological fight-or-flight terms, which only causes a fight with his much younger girlfriend (Fanni Metelius). Men reveal themselves to be posturing fools here, while women sensibly wonder if they’re the only ones keeping our species alive.
This isn’t a fraught drama of the old Bergmanesque variety; it’s more a dark comedy of shame that Ostlund interrupts with some very odd, droll flourishes. The family has a drone that crashes into sensitive conversations. The routine of electric tooth-brushing merges with the inane vacation machinery of ski lifts, snow grooming, and funiculars: man’s futile quest to control nature. Tomas and Ebba keep locking themselves out of their room for late-night conferences, while an impassive janitor watches with disdain. We really have no idea where this movie is headed—if it’ll tip into tragedy or farce. Such uncertainty is rare during the safe pieties of Oscar season (this is Sweden’s submission in the awards derby), yet it underlines the movie’s central question: Should this marriage be saved? (And more: Is marriage itself worth preserving?)
I think any couple with children will find something to recognize in Tomas and Ebba’s teetering at the brink. Their handsome, happy union is revealed to be a construct in two scenes that nearly bookend the film: Both are put on for show—one before the damage, the second to repair it. This picture-perfect family is anything but. Maybe that’s another way of saying they’re typical.