While holidaying in the Alps, a Swedish family becomes engulfed by an avalanche, but manage to survive. The father's cowardice in reaction to the tragedy ends up haunting his wife.

Marriage turns cold in superb avalanche drama.

CANNES FILM FESTIVAL: ‘See it with someone you ****’, read the tagline on the poster of Steven Soderbergh’s underrated The Girlfriend Experience—and for some reason that phrase came to mind as I watched this, the fourth feature from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, and his finest to date.

It struck me, however, as extremely bad advice, at least in this instance. You should by all means see Force Majeure (a.k.a. Turist)—it’s a smart, elegant, beautifully crafted film. And you should absolutely do so alone; under no circumstances should you go with a lover or a spouse. Thorny and unrelenting, it’s the equivalent of one of those Cosmo magazine relationship quiz—and like them, precision-built (in the immortal words of comedian Anthony Jeselnik) ‘to fuck up your entire life.’ Or, as one colleague put it, as we left the screening, ‘That movie’s gonna end a lot of relationships.’

A young Swedish family—mother, father, two cute-as-a-button children—are holidaying in the Swiss Alps. They’re prosperous and healthy, and super-white; they look like they might have just stepped out of an Ikea catalogue, a world of blonde wood and clean, uncluttered lines. Their first day passes uneventfully: they ski, eat, bicker. (Their kids are especially annoying.) But while lunching on their resort’s balcony on the second, they experience something altogether unexpected: a mini-avalanche, triggered by a ‘controlled’ explosion by the resort operators. (These muffled detonations, which boom and echo throughout the night, lend the otherwise tranquil slopes an edgy, life-during-wartime quality.)

Screening at: Melbourne International Film Festival 2014

The detonation is distant, and the balcony high: it seems impossible that they should be caught up in it. But the clouds of snow and ice quickly grow closer—and seconds later they are engulfed. The mother, Ebba, instinctively shields her children from the possibility of harm, but her husband Tomas… well, let’s just say he doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory. And while he later claims to have no memory of doing what he did, their relationship is irrevocably altered, nonetheless.

Some readers might recognise the set-up from Julia Loktev’s recent drama The Loneliest Planet. But while the premise is identical—the consequences of an instant’s cowardice upon a relationship; character revealed in extremis—the setting could hardly be more different. That film was set in a dismal backwater, the wilds of rural Georgia, and its protagonists were young backpackers. This one is aimed at a slightly older and more middle-class audience, people with jobs and mortgages and children—the kinds of people, in short, who might holiday at resorts in the Alps—and benefits greatly from the shift, since it has the effect of making the stakes that much higher, and our identification that much more acute.

Östlund is often called a provocateur, and certainly he takes an almost childlike delight in poking at some of the more settled assumptions of bourgeois society. (You sense he might be a somewhat self-loathing Swede.) His last feature, 2011’s Play—which also screened at Cannes, though in Directors’ Fortnight rather than Un Certain Regard—focused on the effects of bullying among teenagers, but drew dismay from some viewers for a perceived racial subtext. In fact, it was merely pointing out what should be obvious to any intelligent observer: that, the world being what it is, racial difference inevitably informs—and perverts—every social interaction.

This one is a more distinctly formalist work: divided into five chapters, each corresponding to a day of their holiday; utilising a mostly fixed camera throughout, and scenes that play out in real-time. His handling of actors is nearly flawless—as the married couple, Lisa Loven Kongsli and Johannes Bah Kuhnke are each superb—and his control of his tone extraordinary. Once the bomb in the narrative has gone off, and Ebba has realised to her dismay that Tomas is not the man she thought he was—not a man, in fact, to whom she can in good conscience continue to be married—Östlund simply stands back and calmly observes the wreckage of their marriage, burning as it falls to Earth.

Inevitably, it takes out a few innocent bystanders along the way—notably, their recently-divorced mutual friend Mats (Kristofer Hiviu, familiar from Game of Thrones), and his new, much younger girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Who, visiting, not only become caught up in the aftermath, but inevitably find themselves obliged to reconsider their own relationship. These scenes are beautifully written, and very funny: Mats’ halting, awkward attempts to defend his buddy (and, by extension, their entire gender) are excruciating to behold—and a single cut, from the four principals sitting around a table, earnestly debating Tomas’s cowardice, to Mats and Fanni in an elevator, returning to their room in grudgeful silence, is funnier and far sharper than anything in, say, This Is 40. (Tellingly, Östlund also co-edited the film.)

Much of the action concerns Ebba and Tomas’s very Scandinavian attempt to agree upon what they call a ‘shared version’ of events; a workable compromise that will allow them to go on, weaker than before but still together. But of course, the well has been poisoned—not least, by the discovery of one devastating detail: that, while Tomas neglected to ‘save’ any of his children, he did manage to grab his iPhone before he fled. It's a small touch that perfectly encapsulates of this film's measured-yet-merciless approach, its ability to make Mont Blanc-sized mountains out of apparent molehills. George Costanza would be sympathetic, if not quite proud.