10/27/2014 08:52 pm ET Updated Dec 27, 2014

A Male Melt-down in the Alps

Force Majeure, which stirred up the troops in Cannes, is a must-see dark comedy from Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund about how a cowardly decision in a moment of crisis can be hell on a marriage.

An attractive upscale couple with adorable kids -- straight from an IKEA catalog, it's been remarked -- are on a ski vacation in the French Alps, when a "controlled" avalanche threatens to engulf them as they sit eating lunch at a mountainside restaurant. While Ebba, the wife (Lisa Loven Kongsli) rushes to protect the two children, her husband Thomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke) grabs his iPhone and flees to safety. The rest of the movie essentially explores the fall-out on the couple and the family of Thomas's ignoble dash. At first he's in full denial, as Ebba compulsively relives the moment in front of any captive audience -- but eventually Thomas confronts his behavior in one of the great man melt-downs ever committed to screen.

Force may sound like heavy sledding, but its elegance and technical leger-de-main make it consistently entertaining (while running a tad long, like all too many films these days; where is the fat-free patrol? Overrun by the filmmaker's ego?) Force is a contrast in light and dark: the glacial white exteriors of the Alps alternate with the burnished, safe warmth of the sleek hotel. The comedy of Thomas's best friend, who arrives on a tryst with his much-younger gf -- only to squander a night in bed obsessing over how he himself would have reacted to the avalanche -- is undercut by Thomas's genuine pain over falling short of his own standards. In effect, he has failed to live up to what society expects of a Real Man, a notion that Ostlund appears to regard with sly skepticism.

What makes this film especially thrilling and elegant, though, is the authenticity of the scenes set among the slopes and ski lifts; the contrast of the awesome Alpine stillness and whiteouts with an unnerving sound of grinding cables; the vastness of the empty slopes at night peppered with gun reports used to trigger avalanches that will protect skiers by day. What viewers might enjoy knowing is that Ostlund, who's kind of famous for this, has digitally monkeyed with the images; he's enhanced both the starkness of the mountainscape and the vulnerable habitats nestled within it in ways the eye can't precisely see -- it's subtle -- but which we subliminally sense. His portrait of Nature's menace and beauty forms the perfect counterpoise to the human-scale tempest lashing the plush interiors of the hotel.