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film review

Force Majeure stars, from left to right, Johannes Kuhnke, Vincent Wettergren, Clara Wettergren and Lisa Loven Kongsli as a family on a ski holiday in the French Alps.

There are those trying to position Gone Girl as the date-and-debate movie of the season, but it isn't half the unsettling thriller Force Majeure is. In Swedish it's called Turist and a more fitting translation might have been National Lampoon's Swiss Ski Vacation at the Marital Overlook Hotel (as directed by John Cassavetes).

Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and her husband, Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), are at a luxury ski resort with their children Vera and Harry. At check-in, Ebba casually tells a perfect stranger that they're on vacation together because her husband works too much.

Day one: They're exhausted and napping together. The next morning as they groom themselves for day two – a buzzing quartet of electric toothbrushes and staring at one another in the mirror – the plows outside freshen and groom the hill. Cue the occasional tongue-in-cheek foreboding frenzy of orchestral strings.

Sure, Tomas has shown up, but he's fundamentally disengaged – the novelty of picturesque togetherness will soon wear off.

It happens quickly, over lunch at the scenic outdoor restaurant, where the mountain's creak after a distant controlled avalanche becomes an ominous groan. In the moment of crisis, husband and wife react with very different primal instincts.

Oh, but "everyone is fine." The patrons brush themselves off and pick up their forks. Everyone seemingly returns to normal. But for the family, the dusting of snow might as well be nuclear ash.

To Tomas, it's an interesting incident that makes for a dramatic anecdote later over a glass of wine with new acquaintances – for Ebba (and for the film), it's the coup de théâtre that sets everything slowly in motion. But Tomas might just be so far up his own navel that his denial is self-delusion.

It begins to feel like the trigger point of a family unit beginning to collapse. Or will it? The scenes build ever so slowly and edge towards it, capturing the agony and lingering there. Grounded in reality, this is the sort of cinematic discomfort seldom seen in most films in the West outside of the horror genre (or Larry David's genre of humour).

The remote setting isolates them together with no escape route, and the majestic, snowy hush of the surroundings further amplifies everything. Director Ruben Ostlund plays this aspect as much visually as for sound – their ski edges spraying powder as they slice and meander down the hill, the housekeeping staff vacuuming, the awkward march of ski boots and their clinking buckles, and even in the magnificent outdoors, the persistent low drone and thunk of the ski lift, teasing out glances in dialogue-free scenes as agonizingly slowly as the conveyor belt that repeatedly returns them to the top of the ski run.

With the four of them thrust in the well-appointed but claustrophobic suite at the lodge, the parents try to find privacy to hash out "what actually happened" and the blame and recriminations of both that moment and of their marriage. They don't find any, even in the hotel's common areas – one of the maintenance workers observes their urgent whispers in the hallway from across the interior courtyard, as dispassionate but intrigued at a remove as we are.

It is often deliciously, horrifically awkward and downright uncomfortable. The spooky malaise as Ostlund unravels what lies beneath their respective fight or flight responses. ("You seem irritated" may be the marital understatement of the year.) The slow journey home a fitting coda, as it slowly dawns on the occupants that the bus driver is simply not up to navigating the steep, hairpin turns of the descent.