The Swedish family in Force Majeure witnesses a controlled avalanche.
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Force Majeure's manipulative morality feels like a passé dinner-party game

The more outlandish the film becomes, the looser its grip.

Force Majeure (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

The popular 1980s game Scruples prompted dinner-party discussion and in many cases argument by proposing ethical conundrums (“You’ve sold your house. Before you move out, the roof starts to leak. Do you have it fixed?”). There is a whole species of movie modelled calculatedly in the same spirit. Would you hire out your spouse for $1m? (Indecent Proposal.) Is there a limit to the orders you would take from authority? (Compliance.) Should one behave at all times like a complete shit? (The entire output of Neil LaBute.)

Ruben Östlund announced himself a practitioner of talking-point cinema with his last film, Play, which investigated preconceptions about race using a factually based story of white middle-class children bullied ingeniously by their black peers. Gender is the hot potato in Force Majeure. It begins on the slopes at a ski resort where a Swedish family – Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two paler-than-snow children – are having their picture taken by an unseen snapper. Each new instruction (lean your heads together, smile) puts the subjects under increasing scrutiny until they seem actually to be squirming. This doesn’t abate for the remainder of the film. Near the end, they will still be together, but their bodies will be piled in a wriggling heap, as though they have all thrown themselves at once on the same grenade.

Eating lunch on a terrace, the family is among those admiring the spectacle of a controlled avalanche. But when it looks for a moment as though the tumbling snow will engulf the diners, Tomas flees. This could perhaps be excused as a momentary malfunction, fight or flight, had he not also had the presence of mind to grab his phone first. Back at the hotel, he denies the accusations – but Ebba knows what she saw. They settle on a compromise. Regardless of their differing interpretations, they agree that an avalanche was “experienced” by both of them. The wording suggests a press release or a political rapprochement. But the real avalanche is just beginning.

Casting is a nice part of the joke here. It was somehow no surprise in Seinfeld when Jason Alexander, as George Costanza, trampled over children and the infirm to escape what he believed wrongly to be a fire; that’s what a coward looks like. But Kuhnke resembles the sort of sun-kissed hunk who could halt an avalanche with one hand and consider it only a minor part of his workout regime. Our expectations have further to fall.

Östlund and his cinematographer, Fredrik Wenzel, leave no doubt that things were remiss long before Tomas chose phone over family. The compositions around the ski resort are just off balance enough to be destabilising. Are we looking at dangerous, churning factory parts that could take someone’s arm off? No, it’s a row of juddering cable cars shot from an unusual vantage point. Ski-lift passengers are shown in close-up so that their faces float without context in a white void. The bigger picture is always being concealed. This extends to what we can hear. The resort is both noisy and deserted. Thumping music and delighted cheers always emanate from somewhere else. The family is at once aware of other people’s enjoyment and excluded from it.

Even when we can be sure what we are seeing, shots are held past the point of politeness, until it seems that the camera is casting aspersions on the image. All of this gives the impression that our reactions are being steered by a superior power, the force majeure of the title, be it morality, family or simply the manipulative hand of a film director.

If anything undermines this knowing comedy of manners, it is the sense that it prides itself on being a knowing comedy of manners. Plausibility in the film depends on both the misdemeanour and its fallout appearing logical. But the disintegration of Tomas and Ebba’s relationship is contrived – exacerbated by details minor (a sinister hotel janitor) and major (the discontentment spreading like a virus to their friends) – and this militates against effectiveness. The more outlandish the film becomes, the looser its grip. Brazen manipulation in action cinema can be an ecstatic thing: there would be no Hitchcock or Spielberg without it. In the realm of drama, though, it helps not to feel we are being prodded towards debate, like players in a passé dinner-party game.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Karen Bradley as Culture Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

The most politically charged of the culture minister's responsibilities is overseeing the BBC, and to anyone who works for - or simply loves - the national broadcaster, Karen Bradley has one big point in her favour. She is not John Whittingdale. Her predecessor as culture secretary was notorious for his belief that the BBC was a wasteful, over-mighty organisation which needed to be curbed. And he would have had ample opportunity to do this: the BBC's Charter is due for renewal next year, and the licence fee is only fixed until 2017. 

In her previous job at the Home Office, Karen Bradley gained a reputation as a calm, low-key minister. It now seems likely that the charter renewal will be accomplished with fewer frothing editorials about "BBC bias" and more attention to the challenges facing the organisation as viewing patterns fragment and increasing numbers of viewers move online.

Of the rest of the job, the tourism part just got easier: with the pound so weak, it will be easier to attract visitors to Britain from abroad. And as for press regulation, there is no word strong enough to describe how long the grass is into which it has been kicked.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.