Swedish director Ruben Östlund has made something of a career depicting people behaving badly, the subject matter ranging from naughty schoolgirls posing for sexy photos to the more serious problem of bullying, in films such as Play and Involuntary. Appearing in the Un Certain Regard section, Force Majeure deals with another case of bad behaviour, this time that of a husband and father abandoning his family to save himself.

The film takes place on a family ski trip in a luxury resort. Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their two children are on a short vacation, Ebba monitoring Tomas’ phone time and reminding everyone that this is a chance for him to spend some much-needed quality time with the kids. They are young, wealthy and beautiful: the perfect family unit. But how perfect is their relationship? When an avalanche threatens to engulf the family, Tomas instinctively grabs his iPhone and runs for cover, leaving Ebba and the kids to fend for themselves.

The following days depict the couple’s reaction to the incident, Tomas’ cowardice and lack of paternal instinct a huge disappointment to the maternal and protective Ebba. When the couple recount their snowy misadventure to their friends, the latter also come into conflict, hypothesising about each other’s reaction in a similar situation. Thus the holiday continues, with the adults reassessing their very nature as well as their relationships with one another. Meanwhile, the traumatised children no longer whom to look to as their dad slowly disintegrates and his position as pater familia begins to wobble.

The director makes great use of his snowy backdrop to create blinding Kubrikesque scenes. The snow storms and fog add to the sense that these are people who are lost and fumbling around in search of their identities. Inside the hotel is all wood and warmth, a contrast to the austere and potentially dangerous surroundings. What started out as a relaxing break has turned into a survival course. We begin to question why humans have a desire to test nature by building in the midst of hazard, but maybe it’s a metaphor for how we build our relationships. As the days are marked off, we wonder how the denouement will play out.

Östlund has created a scathing and acerbic comedy about the plight of contemporary couples, the condition of male pride and human instinct that takes over in surprising and often shocking fashion. Kuhnke portrays Tomas’ gradual realisation of his true nature brilliantly, but the comedic outstanding performance is that of Kristofer Hivju as Tomas’ mate, a Viking of a man who never doubts his masculinity. This film has also been one of the rare opportunities to have laugh-out-loud moments at Cannes this year, and for this we should be grateful to Östlund.