Ruben Östlund, the Palme D’Or winner, sits down with Totally Dublin, on a sunny day in Gothenburg, to discuss his latest film The Square.
It’s a sun-kissed August Friday in Gothenburg. Ruben Östlund is back in his hometown for the Way Out West music festival, where he will screen his latest opus The Square. Östlund has become a figurehead for a new wave of avant-garde Swedish cinema. He earned considerable recognition for his fantastic Force Majeure (which has an American remake currently in the works) and won the 2017 Palme D’Or in Cannes with his latest film The Square, also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
His latest film is a barbed satire which pricks the ego of the art establishment and attendant societal attitudes. Christian (Claes Bang) is an art curator at a prestigious museum in Stockholm. He personally exhibits all the smug attributes of someone in such an elevated position, cushioned from the bracing winds of reality which lie outside the museum door. He is about unveil ‘The Square’, a contentious exhibit, when his phone is stolen, triggering a professional and personal crisis. The Square explores the intersection between his rarefied world and the realities of homelessness which, like in Dublin, is a reflection of state neglect, but manifests in uneasy coexistence with those more fortunate.
“The first time I met beggars was in Dublin. I was there with my father and there were school kids asking for money, and I was shocked. I wanted to help them but they only wanted more,” says Östlund.
“Scandinavian society has ended up in conflict with itself in terms of how the state should deal with this. It’s so interesting to see how quickly these questions are taken from the state and given to the individual. We only talk about, ‘Should I give or not give?’ but we don’t talk about ‘Should we raise taxes by 0.01 percent and then deal with the problem altogether?’ I think that Swedes are ashamed of inequality. We are very sensitive to that. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, actually.”
“Political correctness is often seen as a bad thing. I rather think it’s a way of striving for equality. For me, it’s about asking, ‘How do I deal with the moral conflict in myself?’ On a broader societal level, as in The Square, and on the individual level as well. I love when you set up a situation that is a dilemma. You have two or more choices, but none of them is easy to make.”
Such a staged dilemma propelled the narrative of Force Majeure, his ski drama, in which an actual avalanche unleashes a snowball effect of consequences upon a middle-class family on vacation. The fallout is dark and cringe-inducing, but utterly relatable as it pivots on a split-second decision which forces the viewer to consider what their own reaction might have been.
Östlund explains his deep connection to the slopes: “I was brought up on a small island, just outside Gothenburg and my mother was from the north of Sweden, so every winter we went up to the far north. For me, it became my identity to do something that none of the other kids did. So I was like, ‘Okay I’m going to be a ski fanatic’.”
“I’d been watching ski movies for many years and became completely obsessed with them. Eventually, I started to film skiing. I thought it was fantastic how you could capture a moment and look at it immediately and not get it developed in film, things like that. I did this for quite a few years,” he explains.
“For me it was really important because I was 100% interested in what was in front of the camera, so there was no idea of me being a director, the idea of the personal. I was interested solely in what was in front of the camera. And you know with skiers, they really want to perform, so the actors pay attention [laughs]. They are taking risks that some actors don’t consider. The actors think, ‘Let’s get through this day.’ So, when I shoot skiing I can put the actors in a corner and say, ‘come on’.”
Östlund’s brinkmanship techniques also inform the centrepiece moment of The Square. At a banquet for the museum, a performance artist played by Terry Notary goes literally apeshit to the horror of the assembled crowd. It considers how much discomfort the art world can actually handle.
“I have never worked with a better actor [Terry Notary], never seen a performance – on my set at least – where I thought, ‘Oh my God’. Every single time he entered the room, he had 300 people looking at him, and he had to push out that level.”
The cast also features Elisabeth Moss who plays Anne, an American journalist who becomes entangled in the life of Christian and delivers a hilariously memorable sex scene, and a cameo by Dominic West as a pampered artist called Julian whose work includes piles of gravel on a floor. They have hinted in interviews that it is based on Julian Schnabel.
Östlund knows he may rankle the art world with his send-up of the po-faced sincerity around the absurdities of what is classified as art.
“When Duchamp put the pissoir in the museum, it was a provocation towards the people in that room. The context has changed and it is not a provocation anymore. The one thing I can say about the contemporary art world is that I know exactly how they will try to defend themselves when it comes to this film. They will say, ‘Well, it’s easy scoring points against our world.’ Well, your world is completely banal, admit that! There are many elements in the art world that are fantastic, but you are hiding under a role; it’s not about being critical to art elitism or anything, but there is so much corporate art shit that they are dealing with.”
“I read that Steve McQueen got tired of the art world just because of the money. When it comes to movies, it is the same. All over the world, it costs almost the same to buy the ticket; it’s really a democratic thing, to have access to movies. There’s something beautiful to it.”
But there is the inevitable lure of Hollywood, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s name being attached to the remake of Force Majeure. However, Östlund is steadfastly unfazed by it. “I really must say that I think most of the scripts that come from the US are very silly. I have an American agent, who I love, they are super nice – but come on, the kind of scripts they are sending. I’ve started to say, ‘I will not kill any character in my movies, so don’t send me any movie where you kill a character.’ I think it’s a cheap way of trying to create something that is dramatic.”
His next focus is on the fashion world in Triangle of Sadness, which promises to be a lighter diversion from the existential angst of his previous offerings. He was inspired by his partner who is a German fashion photographer.
“Every fashion movie tries to say it is a cynical world, and I thought it would be interesting to be very careful with the characters. They would be the most sympathetic characters I’ve ever created, but the system they are in is cynical. The ‘triangle of sadness’ is when you have a wrinkle between your eyebrows.”
“It’s interesting the way that models deal with their own brand today. Suddenly they are supposed to be their own communication channel, so if you don’t have a certain amount of Instagram followers you don’t get a job. So it’s an economic system put down on every single individual, and the time that you can actually make money out of the industry is very short, so they have to quickly try to find an exit.”
It is unlikely that Östlund will trace a conventional arc in his portrayal of this world either. He will be primed to detonate one of his excruciating dilemmas and chisel fractures into the finely honed aspects of his middle-class creations. In the meantime, he returns to his friends by the lakeside to soak up the sunshine and sounds around.
The Square opens in selected cinemas on March 16.
Way Out West festival takes place in Gothenburg from August 9 to 11 and features Kendrick Lamar, Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, Lykke Li, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith and Fever Ray.
Words: Michael McDermott