The tight nit family unit in this Swedish drama, is undeniable. Director Ruben Ostlund is not shy at showing it off either. We have a father and mother; Tomas and Ebba, and two primary school children Vera and Harry, played by real siblings. He consistently frames the family of four in the same shot. Ostlund spends the first half of the film showing their co-operation and communication, on the first day of a skiing holiday in the French Alps. They are in high spirits and stop for a classic arms around each other family holiday shot. All is well until the second day when the drama begins to play out.
Ski resorts regularly conduct controlled avalanches to maintain their slopes and reduce the potential of a more deadly unmanned avalanche. The family are eating on the rooftop of the ski resort, when they witness a controlled avalanche. Impressed by the spectacle the family and the surrounding diners cheer as it cascades down the mountain. Within seconds it seems to have taken a turn for the worse as everyone descends into panic and screaming. Amongst the avalanche fog it is hard to make out what happens. It is at this point that Tomas bolts for safety, as Ebba is left struggling to carry both the children.
The drama for the rest of the film plays out because of that moment and Tomas’ survival instinct. The impending disaster was a false alarm and the diners return quietly to eat. Slight panic, but no harm done, right?
Tomas sheepishly returns after most everyone else. At first he is perplexed as to why Ebba is irritated at him, and she just shrugs it off. Ruben Ostlund then using careful nuances slowly begins to dissolve the strong family we opened the film with. In fact we do not see the family in the same shot together again. Instead, Ostlund steps back from the couple and gives us his examination of familial disarray. Not in front of the children though, when he family is alone, it’s just solemn. The turmoil between the couple is loudest when they’re in front of other couple friends. Be is clearly desperate to understand what happened and why. While Tomas wants to not talk about it and be forgiven. The slight breaks in dialogue feel momentously long, we’ve all experienced those in our lives.
The directer has made a thought provoking and compelling family drama. He experiments with the social and spousal pressure on men to fulfil a perceived role within the family unit and how this drives him crazy. Tomas even relies on just barefaced lying because he’s struggling to come to terms with his reaction and how it is affecting his family life. Johannes Bah Kuhnke’s performance as Tomas shows a man somewhat lost and he is at his best when the issue is raised in front of other couples. Including Mats and Fanni, who offer us a different look into a situation where a couple perceive an incident differently to each other. That is a key issue of the film; as there is no denying that Ebba is right about what happened. What we must do as a viewer is examine both interpretations of the incident. Ostlund plays this perfectly for me. The film does not pick a side, if this was an American film the melodrama would be heightened and we’d be forced to pick a protagonist that we’re backing. Ostlund here leaves it completely up to the viewer.
Nuanced direction and down to earth performances make this film a tense and rich experience.