By Jose Solis
In “The Square,” director Ruben Östlund continues the exploration of the fragility of masculinity he began in “Force Majeure;” both films deal with “fight or flight,” and how an otherwise unremarkable event can send a man into a spiral of self-doubt and destruction. In “Force Majeure,” an avalanche creates the biggest crisis in a married couple’s life, and while the extraordinary event in “The Square” is less shocking, its ripples change the lives of countless people. Christian (Claes Bang) is a successful museum curator who is keen on recovering the mobile phone someone stole from him, when he tries to cast too wide a net, he ends up catching unexpected fish who will change the course of his life. Told in the darkest of comedic tones, the film should serve as a reminder of how our actions affect even those we don’t know.
The film’s concept of creating a new social contract feels more than appropriate given the divisive times we’re living in. As usual Östlund’s direction is confident enough that the film feels unmistakably his, and yet the scope of its message is told with poetic subtlety. After winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, the film went on to several other festivals including NYFF, it was also selected as Sweden’s official submission into the Foreign Language Film Oscar race. We spoke to Östlund about what it’s like to make art today, why it’s a fascinating time to be a man, and his infamous Oscar nominations video.
I think it’s funny you named your main character Christian, when he’s perhaps the least “Christian” person in the film.
(Laughs) I actually gave him that name for a funny reason, Sweden is a monarchy so the museum in the film is the Royal Castle of Stockholm, and the last time there was a Danish guy in that throne was when King Christian took the power from all the rich people in Stockholm. I thought it was funny to have another Danish guy (Claes Bang is also a Dane) run the castle, so that’s the reason why he has that name. Of course I also thought about Christianity…but do you really think he’s the least Christian person?
In the film, yeah.
The film is coming out during a time when the world is changing, for the worst in many cases. Christian is a heterosexual, white male and he seems to enjoy creating chaos, he uses people at work, women, he gets the Middle Eastern boy into a mess…we’re living in a time when it’s straight, white men getting us into trouble, so have the conversations about the film changed for you in that regard?
It’s going to be interesting to see if it will. Since “Force Majeure” people have been asking me why I’m interested in masculinity and being a white man in this time. What’s interesting is that suddenly being a white man in a power position has been put into the limelight, so we have to start questioning ourselves and our behavior. We need to question the structure of being a man, and what’s in the culture of how we’re brought up. That hadn’t happened for many years and it’s why it’s so interesting to look at myself and how I’m dealing with being a man, how I’m being harsh and challenging myself. I don’t see Christian as someone who wants to create chaos, he’s a man in a position of power that comes with many strings, so he’s not even that free, he’s trying to deal with all the expectations put on him. I’d say it’s an interesting time to be a white, cis man.
I love the scene where we see Anne (Elisabeth Moss) interview Christian, where he has to go back and re-read something he forgot he’d said. How much of that came from your own experiences when journalists revisit quotes of yours?
I’m a professor of film in Gothenburg and next to the film program there’s a fine arts department and a professor there wrote this text which I found to be hilarious. It was so silly I stole it and put it in the movie, I haven’t asked for his permission still.
Are you afraid you’ll be banned from modern art museums?
That would be fine with me (laughs) I have a lot of respect for artists and a lot of institutions that deal with art, but I do satire, so if they can’t handle being criticized, come on.
Both Claes and Johannes Bah Kuhnke from “Force Majeure” come from the stage. Does that come into play when you cast them?
Not at all, I go through a very long casting period where I try out many different actors, I have them do a key scene and then compare the actors. I’m used to bringing down theatre actors to the kind of film acting I want. I think theatre actors can do naturalistic parts as well.
In the scene where Christian gets mugged we go from complete chaos, to having him and a stranger bond and laugh over how scared they were. Does making films help you deal with the scariness of our times? You’re always finding comedy in horrible situations.
I think we live in a very paranoid time, not a very scary time. We look at the world as more dangerous than it actually is, in Sweden for instance the crime rate is lower now than it was 50 years ago. We’re increasing the fear in our society which creates conflicts, I love situations where we think we’ll end in a catastrophe but it never happens, because it was always in our mind. I think images we create on cinema can change how we look at the world, so one of our biggest responsibilities as filmmakers is we’re creating behavior with our movies. I don’t want to make people more afraid than they already are.
I love the symbolism in the movie, you show us reminders of Darwinism through that baby who’s in all the meetings, and also Anne’s chimpanzee which was so surreal. How did elements of evolution find their way into “The Square”?
I believe in Darwinism, one thing I’ve always been interested in when it comes to monkeys is that we mirror ourselves in them. We are animals with instincts and needs, we have a civilized side through which we try to control our instincts and needs, so we are ashamed of them. When we look at monkeys it’s liberating because they’re not ashamed of their needs. Monkeys in art are metaphors to remind us we’re animals. I use the monkey symbolism to represent the bystander effect, we forget we are herd animals and when we get scared we get paralyzed and hope the predator will take someone else and not us. I don’t like psychoanalytic explanations, I’m more interested in who we are as a species and herd animals and how the setup, rather than our backdrop, create our behavior.
When I decided to have a chimpanzee in Anne’s apartment was when I rewrote the script and realized something was missing, the film didn’t feel wild enough, and then the producer and I got away for a weekend to figure out what to add and we came up with Anne’s chimpanzee.
Nothing in the film made me laugh as much as the signs at the museum that describe the exhibit as “piles of gravel,” because that was precisely what they were. Can you talk about creating the art within the movie?
That art piece came from a conversation I had with a friend, I asked him “what do they show at contemporary art museums?” and he goes “mirrors and piles of gravel” and he was right! It’s all piles of gravel and mirrors on walls.
In the scene with Dominic West’s character we also see a character with Tourette’s Syndrome, which made me wonder what’s the oddest thing that’s happened to you at a Q&A?
I don’t know, I just thought it would be funny to hear someone say “camel toe” as we listen to this man talk about art in a serious way. This kind of talk is a ritual, you don’t even have to say anything interesting onstage, you’re just dealing with rituals going “blah blah blah” and sometimes you want to yell “garbage” (laughs) The scene was inspired by a real life situation when a guy with Tourette’s started clapping loudly during a play in Stockholm, I learned they gave him cotton gloves so it would muffle the sound when he came back to the theater. The tolerance in the idea that they wanted to perform for him too was beautiful, some people were provoked by it, but it’s a city run theater so these places should be accessible for everyone. Isn’t it beautiful they have tolerance for all kinds of people?
At the center of the film there’s the fact that you’re making fun of senseless art, but it also makes you think about the importance of making art in a world where children are killed daily in wars and terrorist attacks. Can you talk about this duality in your role as an artist?
The film started because a friend and I actually made this art piece called “The Square” which now exists in two cities in Sweden and two in Norway. We wanted to create a new social contract in public spaces. I feel we don’t believe in the common project anymore, we don’t believe we can trust each other, we look at each other as threats. I wanted to create a place where we could trust each other and share responsibilities. We were invited to exhibit it in a museum and I wrote the screenplay during that time. To me the movie is advertising the art piece, not the other way around.
The film was chosen to represent Sweden at the Oscars, are you excited to be back on the race?
Have you seen the clip of me freaking out when I miss the Oscar nomination?
Yes, I was so sad that time cause I adore “Force Majeure.”
Well that was fake, the world doesn’t end if you don’t get nominated, but I think they’ll be making a mistake if they don’t nominate our film (laughs).
“The Square” is now playing in theaters and you can read Matt Neglia’s review of it here.
You can follow Jose and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @josesolismayen