Ruben Östlund is riding high this week, as the newly-crowned winner of the Palme d’Or for his latest film, The Square, which premiered in Cannes a week last Saturday. It’s a continuation of themes Östlund explored in his last film, Force Majeure, about the burden of human intelligence and societal propriety inasmuch as it contradicts with our more base desires. But with laughs.
In The Square, Claes Bang plays Christian, a well-to-do artistic director at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, as he prepares to mount the titular installation, in which a square of light is installed in the museum’s courtyard. An inscription around it reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” And yet, as he’s mugged on his way into work one day when attempting to intervene in what he believes to be a fraught dispute, he spirals down a complicated moral black hole, forced to reckon with his class, his social standing, and his own insecurities.
The film also stars Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, and, in one of its most incendiary scenes, the brilliant Terry Notary, best known for his work on the motion capture behind the Planet of the Apes rebooted series, alongside Andy Serkis.
Majeure won the Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard sidebar of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, ahead of BAFTA and Globe nominations for Best Foreign Language Film. With a Palme d’Or in tow, we can expect much more to come from The Square, which is being distributed by Magnolia Pictures. I sat down with Östlund a few days after his film premiered to find out more.
Like Force Majeure, The Square seems to be a film interested in the disconnect between what we believe and what we do. How did it come to life?
Yeah, the conflict between our instinct and our intellect. It generated because I was making a film called Play and I read through court files because it was inspired by robberies that took place in the city where I live. These really young boys were robbing other young boys in a mall. When I read the court files I could see that on very, very few occasions adults interacted or tried to help the kids. And the kids didn’t ask for help.
I talked to my father about this—and this story actually became a scene in the film—because my father told me that when he was six years old, and he was brought up in the ‘50s, his parents put an address tag around his neck and sent him into the streets of Stockholm to play. A six-year-old boy in central Stockholm, all by himself. But it was so obvious that, at that time, you looked at other adults as someone that would help your children if they were in trouble. Today we tend to look at other adults as potential threats to our children.
And when I was dealing with this, they also started to build the first gated communities in Sweden. A gated community is a very aggressive way of saying, “We are not taking responsibility for what’s on the outside; we look on that as a threat.” So in this context, me and a film producer friend of mine, Kalle Boman, we came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place where we are reminded of our common responsibility.
And we were invited to a museum—the Vandalorum design museum in Värnamo, Sweden—to do an exhibition about something, and we did an exhibition about this. They built the first Square, and now there are actually two other cities in Norway that have built Squares in their cities.
I didn’t realize until after that the Square idea was out there in the real world.
Actually, it’s celebrating two years now, the Square in Värnamo. It has become a small movement there. People are using it as a gathering point, couples have been engaged in it, and there have been physically handicapped people that have had a benefit taken away from them, and they went and protested the community that took their money away from them in the Square. So in many ways, it has become a small movement in that city.
Why do you think it takes an installation like this for us to engage with sensibilities we all believe in to begin with?
For me, it was a way of breaking the Bystander Effect. We are herd animals, so we get scared when things happen. We have to be reminded, “It’s actually me that should do something.” And it’s as easy as a traffic sign. Civilization is built on agreements between human beings. These roads have pedestrian crossings, and it’s a very simple agreement: here, the car driver should be careful and stop for pedestrians. And of course, you can create new agreements. As we started thinking about this, we realized that we all want to look at ourselves as rational and intellectual, but we have to be reminded to act in a certain way.
In Force Majeure, you questioned the fight-or-flight response of a man who witnesses the start of an avalanche, and then the human fall-out when his partner realizes he didn’t think about her or his kids. With The Square, the canvas is broader still, and there’s commentary on the world of contemporary art, social commentary, family commentary. Was it all fertile ground as the puzzle pieces started coming together?
I think for me it was a very hard film to write, and it was a hard film to make. How do you feel about the topic that—like the PR guys say in the film—everyone agrees on these values of the Square, so why should I get engaged with it? But for me, it was the moment when I realized I wanted to tell the story on two levels, so to speak. One, on an individual level, when you’re practicing your life, trying to deal with morality issues in what you meet in the streets and your family. And the other layer was, for me, those topics on more of a societal level, and attacking the media climate a little bit, and attacking the art world that is supposed to deal with the ideas raised by these topics, and commenting on what we have to deal with as human beings.
I spent a lot of time traveling around, going to contemporary art museums, when I was writing the script. Every time I ended up in a different city I’d visit the art museum to see what was going on there. I must say, it’s very hard to tell the difference between them. You know, they have this piece of sign in neon, and they have these big pieces of metal standing in the middle of the room, or whatever. I felt a little bit like how Duchamp must have felt when he put a urinal in a museum. Then it was a provocation, but today it’s not. It’s like a ritual or a convention that is just repeating itself. It has lost the connection with what’s going on in the outside world.
But, I mean, for me the film could take place in the cinema world also. You need to criticize these fields and you need to criticize your own position as a director. If I scratch the surface, do I have the content or am I just playing a role?
There’s a layer in the film that’s very much about whether we are as special as individuals as we’d each like to believe.
I saw a speech from a very interesting sociological professor who was describing what a Swede is. He was employing a triangle, and he put the state at the top, the individual on the left, and the family on the right. He then plotted where to find America, Germany, and Sweden on that triangle; where you put your trust is what the triangle was all about. I’ve lived in all three of those countries for quite a while. So Americans put their trust between the individual and the family. And the Germans put it between the family and the state. But Swedes put their trust between the individual and the state, and it really points something out: we are super individualistic, but at the same time we have a great belief in this common project that is the state. It was an “aha” experience when I saw this triangle.
Do you think that has changed over time?
Yeah. I mean, take, for example, the thing with the gated communities. I think that we, as a species, are very upset when we see an imbalance. When we see inequality; when we see poverty. We really get provoked by that. So I still think that we are definitely caring about each other, but it’s also not how we’re building cities. The main idea with cities today is, “go to this place; consume.” There’s a thing called hostile design, where they build benches that are at such an angle that they’re uncomfortable to sit on for too long? They put spikes in the entrances to buildings so homeless people can’t sleep there. I think that Marx actually did quite a good analysis on how the economic system is affecting us, and I think it’s very much about that.
I think you can look at different cultures and the varying levels of trust there, too. In Sweden, just to make a comparison about this, if you have a baby trolley with a baby in it, and you’re going to a cafeteria, then you can leave that baby trolley outside the cafeteria when you’re inside drinking your coffee. When you tell that to Americans or other Europeans, they’re like, “What? That’s crazy.” But there’s a very strong argument in Scandinavian society that you don’t steal a child. And still, you would never leave your purse outside the cafeteria, because if it gets stolen, then it’s on you for being stupid.
Terry Notary plays a performance artist who disrupts a black tie gala dinner by behaving like an ape. He physically harasses a woman as everyone sits motionless. By comparison, the lead character, Christian’s, indiscretions aren’t nearly as extreme and yet he’s punished for them.
Well, I think for me, Christian will have no problem to continue and get a new job and work on after the film ends. But still, the problems on the streets outside are still there. So to put them next to each other was an idea, of course. But I didn’t think much of it like that. I wanted him to be like one of the audiences in the Grand Théâtre Lumière [Cannes’ primary screen]. That was actually an idea in the making of the film, that we would screen this in the Lumière, in front of a tuxedo-clad audience, and they’d be looking at a tuxedo-clad man digging in the trash.
Were you tempted to unleash Terry Notary in the screening?
[laughs] Actually we had a great idea for the red carpet, that he should come with his arm extensions. But the problem was that the arm extensions got stuck in lost luggage at the airport, and they arrived two minutes after we had stepped into the car. But we had the idea of creating a PR stunt on the red carpet.
Had you written those scenes into the film before you met him?
I did actually write the scene before. I was googling monkey imitation, or actor imitating monkey, and there was this video that Terry had done for Planet of the Apes, where he did a demonstration. It’s fantastic. He’s like, “OK, so this is what a chimpanzee looks like when they’re walking,” and it’s like, yeah, it’s a chimpanzee. And then there’s the gorilla. Even a child could see he was the best at imitating an ape. You strip acting back to a very, very basic level. So we called him and asked if he’d do it.
You also cast Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, who speak English even though the film is predominantly in Swedish. How did they come to be involved?
I am with WME in America and they very much wanted me to do an English-language film. I thought that it was important that I put The Square in a Scandinavian context, because of how we look at Scandinavia and its social democratic background and history. But then I started to cast, and I cast in Norway, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Helsinki. I went to London because of BAFTA, and then I arranged a couple of meetings and did some improvisations with quite a few English-speaking and American actors in London. Elisabeth Moss I had seen before in Mad Men. I didn’t know Dominic West’s work, really. But with both of them I really, really loved how intelligent they were as actors. I was scared, you know, of working in English, because I thought maybe I would lose the nuances and things like that.
So was this a toe in the water for more work in English?