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Swedish writer takes cues from days he directed skiing documentaries to tell the story of an unravelling family in what some have listed as odds-on favourite to win Best Foreign Film Oscar.

Snow is scary in the superb new Swedish comedy Force Majeure: The whiteness of its mountaintop setting is like a void threatening to swallow the characters whole. The film's plot is set into motion by a "controlled avalanche" that descends on a chic ski resort; the deluge is harmless, but it causes a father to bolt away from his wife and children out of fear for his safety, after which his status as the benevolent head of the household is thrown into severe doubt. "I think that a good title for this movie could have been Avalanche," says writer-director Ruben Ostlund. "The avalanche is a good metaphor for what's going on within the family."

Already a critical hit at TIFF, Force Majeure has had a snowball effect on its creator's career: It's been selected as Sweden's submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, and some handicappers have it listed as the odds-on favourite. A former director of skiing documentaries who turned 40 just before the film showed at Cannes, Ostlund is as dryly funny in conversation as he is behind the camera, and he chooses his words as carefully as his shots, which is to say: very.

"When I was making ski films, the style was determined by the skill of the skiers," he says. "The better the skier was, the longer we could hold the shots, because we were trying to capture their ability, to make it feel that much more intense. And you're dependent on that skill because you can't create those images in the editing room." Skiing is an afterthought in Force Majeure, but the same basic principle is in place. The director keeps the camera trained on his characters for agonizingly long periods of time, allowing us to scan their faces for signs of emotional strain.

"I really like nature videos on YouTube," Ostlund says brightly, adding that he's particularly fond of Battle at Kruger, an eight-minute amateur video shot by a tourist in Tanzania that chronicles the conflict between a pride of lions, a herd of wildebeest and a lone crocodile (it has more than 75 million views on YouTube). "It's like an epic situation, with all these different groups [of animals] interacting," he says. "I love that. There is no judgment of their behaviour. The people who shoot these videos don't judge crocodiles or lions. That's the same way that I want to look at humans. These are the sorts of things that we do."

While nobody would mistake Force Majeure's skillfully filmed action for a documentary, Ostlund says he based the script in research about the fallout from life-or-death scenarios. "I read a report on airplane hijackings, and it turns out that the divorce rate for couples who are involved in those sorts of situations is very high afterward." He was also inspired by TV ads for vacation spots, which he felt illustrated the cultural stereotypes around down time. "In commercials, the mother is there relaxing with a drink in her hand, and the father is playing with his kids on the beach. It's like it's now payback time for the man." Force Majeure is not nearly so idyllic: In its most memorable scene, Tomas tries to win his family back via a torrential downpour of crocodile tears. And, once again, Ostlund looked to the Internet for inspiration.

"I tried googling 'worst man cry ever,'" he says. "[The videos I found], they don't create much sympathy for the viewer. I was talking to a friend about that scene, and he said that the 'fake cry is the male version of the fake orgasm for women.' I thought it was a very good comparison."