The Dream of a Common Project: An Interview With Ruben Östlund (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton
The Swedish director Ruben Östlund combines the analytical savvy of a social scientist with the puckish humor of a skillful farceur. Although his latest film The Square (which won the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival) is by far his most ambitious, it is of a piece with his earlier work inasmuch as it sheds light on the overweening conformism of otherwise good people and the awkwardness that results when well-intentioned individuals find themselves enmeshed in acutely embarrassing social situations.
In a Directors’ Note on The Square included in the film’s press kit, Östlund remarks that, when researching his film Play (2011), he “repeatedly came across the inability we have to offer help in public spaces.” Östlund’s distress while assessing the contemporary enshrinement of the individual and the eroding faith in community and collective solidarity inspired him to formulate an art project known as “The Square” that was initially debuted in the Swedish city of Varnämo. For Östlund, who invokes the Golden Rule and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this installation embodies both the most hallowed ideals of the humanistic tradition and a practical laboratory that might tell us if ordinary people will respond altruistically when encouraged to do so within the confines of an autonomous zone designed to foster trust and good will.
The film incorporates this actual social and aesthetic experiment into a fictional realm. Christian (Claes Bang), a museum curator in Stockholm whose institution houses “The Square,” outwardly personifies the progressive ideals of a modern art-world celebrity. He’s also more than a little smug—a slick, good-looking operator with a gift for glib patter. Christian’s hauteur is undermined when he meets Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American journalist with whom he enjoys a one-night stand. The outspoken Anne challenges Christian’s tendency to fling around critical mumbo-jumbo and merrily pokes holes in his barely conscious deployment of male privilege.
More than a mere art world satire, the film also wittily explores how even the most enlightened among us can fall prey to conformist behavior, or what Östlund terms the reactions of “herd animals”—i.e. human beings. A number of incidents underline the disparity between a desire to be altruistic and our corresponding need to avoid what is, in the age of the Internet, termed the humiliation of “being publicly shamed.” In a scene that is as excruciating as it is hilarious, a Julian Schnabel-like artist strenuously attempts to ignore the obscenities coming out of the mouth of a man in the audience who suffers from Tourette Syndrome. Wealthy guests at a dinner do their best to remain oblivious to the increasingly aggressive grunts and threats of a performance artist named Oleg (played by motion-capture performer Terry Notary) impersonating an ape. Christian’s complacent liberalism is itself undone by the theft of his cell phone—and his vengeful compulsion to punish the working-class culprit who stole it. And in one of the film’s most succinct jabs at the contemporary tendency to reduce politics to mere spectacle, an advertising agency’s good faith effort to illuminate the museum’s social conscience is sabotaged by a disastrous decision to produce what is perhaps the most hilariously offensive promotional video of all time.
Östlund’s meticulously choreographed gags prevent The Square from becoming overly preachy. In one of the film’s most painful comic interludes, Christian’s calm demeanor begins to crack when Anne berates him for being a self-obsessed male; as a man with a carefully groomed image, he can’t help but divide his attention between Anne’s rant and the persistent stare of an eavesdropping museum attendant. High-minded ideals are easily discarded when burnishing one’s ego become more important than an idealistic agenda.
Cineaste interviewed Östlund in late September on the eve of The Square’s East Coast premiere at the New York Film Festival. Armed with a slightly mischievous laugh, his earnest delineation of the film’s themes was always tempered by a highly cultivated sense of the absurd.—Richard Porton
Cineaste: All your films deal with awkward social encounters and embarrassing tête á têtes. So, to a certain extent, you’re just continuing to explore these themes on a larger scale in The Square.
Ruben Östlund: “Awkward” is one of the most Googled words on the Internet. It’s up there in the top twenty, or something like that. As far as awkwardness on film goes, it’s almost similar to what happens when we watch violence in the movies. We get a bit of a rush. We don’t have to participate, but at least we can connect with the fear of being in that situation. Human beings are herd animals and we’re constantly maneuvering within a group. We have a lot of white around our eyes and can immediately see if someone on the other side of the room is looking at us. We’re very skillful at detecting the rules of the social game. It is just part of being human to be sensitive to this type of social embarrassment.
Cineaste: In concrete terms, this process comes to the fore in the scene in The Square where Anne is chewing out Christian and he’s extremely nervous about the museum attendant’s reaction to the brouhaha. That adds a decidedly comic element to the encounter.
Östlund: I always think it’s funny when you have a dialogue between two people and a third person is watching or listening.
Cineaste: It’s quite realistic. If you’re having an argument with someone on the street, you’re always quite conscious of who might be watching or listening.
Östlund: I tried in this film to add more elements to quite simple setups. For example, when these PR guys are pitching, it was very stimulating to add a baby to the chorus of people in the room and see how they react. Then there’s also the moment when Elisabeth Moss and Claes are talking against the noise of an installation. A pause is necessitated when some chairs crash together.
Cineaste: Did you work out the details of that scene with the sound designer?
Östlund: Yes. When I was shooting the film, I had these buttons. So when I was working on this scene, I just pushed the button [makes noise] and we got this big crashing sound. I worked this way throughout the film.
Cineaste: Most articles on the film mention the fact that the main impetus for The Square came from an exhibition you organized at Värnamo’s Vandalorum Museum in the south of Sweden.
Östlund: They built this installation in both in the museum and in Värnamo’s city square, as well as in three other cities in Norway and Sweden. So this symbolic place, “The Square,” actually exists in four cities now.
Cineaste: There seems to be a central contradiction in the film. While The Square is, at least to a certain extent, invested in a certain utopian ideal, you also point out that human weaknesses prevent this idealism from being realized. Is the film optimistic because of your investment in this utopianism—or pessimistic because you demonstrate that altruism is nearly an impossible goal?
Östlund: I’m not interested in looking at “The Square” installation as utopia, but as a pedestrian crossing. With a couple of lines in the street, we’ve actually been able to reach an agreement that cars will be careful when confronting pedestrians. That’s kind of beautiful; it’s a great human invention. Of course, we can create new agreements that we can apply to various situations and embrace. The idea of the square was to create another social contract that doesn’t exist outside of “The Square.” We obviously want this social contract to exist throughout society, but we frame it in a way that makes it possible to reflect upon its implications.
We assume that utopia signifies something that’s impossible and will never occur, but utopia might help us strive to achieve the goal of a more equal society. It’s a constant struggle that we have to be vigilant about. Otherwise, we’ll create a very unequal society. One of the big dilemmas for me is that, as human beings, we’re dealing with our instincts and our needs at the same time that we continue to view ourselves as rational, civilized people. The civilized side of our personalities governs our ethical self, our tendency to show respect to, and trust, each other. But when we’re dealing with our instincts, and we’re pushed into a corner, there’s a conflict between those two sides of our personalities. This conflict is at the core of being human. We’re so ashamed of our instincts and our needs. We usually think along these lines: “I want to do good, but it’s not easy to do good. I do a lot of bad things, but I know that I should behave differently.”
Cineaste: So, from this perspective, we shouldn’t view Christian as a hypocrite.
Östlund: I don’t think so. I’m basing this answer on myself, but I think his behavior and responses are similar to what all of us are dealing with. We shouldn’t put plastic refuse in garbage cans, we should put it in the recycling bin. But do we do it? People today are put under a lot of pressure when it comes to matters of guilt and bad faith.
Cineaste: Liberal guilt?
Östlund: Exactly. Do we really think we can solve the environmental crisis by recycling? And can we solve the homeless crisis by giving beggars a couple of coins every day? We’ve lost any belief in a common project. The idea of solving problems with the help of the state has been shelved and every problem is now considered on an individual level.
Cineaste: Is this shift pertinent to what’s occurred in recent years in Sweden? Although the Social Democrats are still in power, the country has apparently become more conservative and privatization is more popular.
Östlund: Speaking for myself, I don’t think we should focus attention solely on Sweden. I consider the film a satire since I’m trying to take some tendencies in contemporary society and exaggerate them a bit. But if you look at Sweden, there are two distinct phenomena that have arisen. One is the gated community. A gated community is a very aggressive way of saying, “Here are the borders of my responsibility. Anything outside of these gates I have nothing to do with.” And outside of these gates, we have groups that call themselves the mafia. It’s not very common, but these groups exist. The idea of the mafia is that you make your own rules; you don’t adhere to the roles and laws of society. So if these are the two new phenomena dominating cities, the question is: have we lost faith in a common project? How are we now supposed to interact outside of our private spaces? I guess Europe and the United States have different definitions of the world “liberal.”
Cineaste: Yes, that’s true, although in recent years the word “neoliberal” has come to be associated with free-market economic policies while “liberal” is a rather vacuous synonym for slightly left of center.
Östlund: Yes, but in Sweden liberalism is definitely not associated with socialism. It’s associated with neoliberal economics. This kind of liberalism is making us very individualistic and creating new challenges for us. It’s odd, though. When you screen a film from a small country such as Sweden abroad, it begins to represent Sweden. Of course, it doesn’t represent the entirety of Sweden—it represents part of Sweden. It was funny when The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo became a success. When I was last here in 2014, people commented, “ I didn’t know that Sweden was like that.” When books and films are big successes, they create new images of the countries involved.
Cineaste: People didn’t realize that there were Swedish Nazis!
Östlund: Exactly! (Laughs)
Cineaste: In a similar vein, I recently saw the Norwegian film Thelma, which deals with a young woman from a strict Protestant background. Many audience members were surprised that there were any Christian fundamentalists in Norway at all!
Östlund: So the next time you meet a Norwegian person, you’ll wonder, “Is he one of those fundamentalist Christians?” That’s the interesting aspect of movies and books. If they’re very successful, they’re going to create stereotypes.
Cineaste: Moving on to the “artspeak” that Christian uses in the film, are you explicitly referencing, or parodying, Nicolas Bourriaud’s concept of “relational aesthetics?”
Östlund: In the same way that the ski resort was a backdrop to the action in Force Majeure, I look at the art world as a backdrop to the narrative in this film. But I teach film directing at the University of Gothenburg, which has a program in fine arts. The text that Elisabeth Moss reads from during her opening interview with Claes is actually something I stole from one of the professors in the Fine Arts Department. And I didn’t ask for his permission to use it. There’s this corporate theory bullshit. When you scratch the surface, there’s not much underneath. So that was an aspect of the art world that I definitely wanted to criticize.
On the other hand, it’s interesting that the art scene can embrace an idea like “The Square.” It would not be possible to explore this idea if the art world didn’t exist. The art world is on the cutting edge when it comes to trying out these ideas. They were actually tried out on the streets in Sweden and Norway. There are good things about the art world and there are also very silly aspects of it.
Cineaste: Of course, when the Moss character questions him about his jargon, he hesitates but then comes up with a response that sounds a lot like Marcel Duchamp’s rationale for placing a urinal in a museum, labeling it “Fountain” and calling it art. When an ordinary object is placed in an art world context, it then becomes art.
Östlund: The Duchamp comparison is fun. But, of course, when he put a pissoir in a museum it was a provocation meant to shock the staid art world of his day. These days, not too many people are provoked by this kind of gesture. When you see piles of gravel in a museum, you’re no longer provoked by it because you’re so used to that kind of exhibition.
Cineaste: Yes, Duchamp’s “Fountain” was created a hundred years ago. Towards the end of his life, even Buñuel complained that it was no longer possible to shock his audience as he did in Un Chien Andalou.
Östlund: In The Square, there was originally one provocation that I didn’t dare to include. When the kid is blown up in the promotional video, I originally had someone shout “Allahu Akhbar.” I wondered if I should inject more oxygen into this conflict. In the end, I felt that I didn’t want to do that.
Cineaste: Is it true that some of the actors in that scene actually work in an advertising agency?
Östlund: Yes, two of the guys in that scene are actually from an advertising agency.
Cineaste: How did you convince them to participate?
Östlund: They did it happily. They had no problem making fun of themselves.
Cineaste: And this is an agency called Studio Total?
Östlund Well, the inspiration for the scene in the film came from an agency called Studio Total. They’ve actually been involved in a number of edgy advertising stunts. They’ve provoked a lot of people while bringing a lot of attention to themselves. Since they’ve also expressed a political viewpoint, I was somewhat inspired by them while writing that part of the script.
Cineaste: Some of the humor in the film derives from the fact that, although Christian is repulsed by the ad, he also claims that he had nothing to do with it.
Östlund: When these agencies are doing ads on a pro bono basis for a cultural institution, they sometimes claim that they’re stretching the limits of taste because they’re practically working for free.
Cineaste: You mentioned that you appropriated a text from your university for the art world verbiage in the film. Were there other actual encounters that inspired you? It’s easy to imagine, as happens in your film, guests at an art opening making a stampede for the food table after the speeches come to an end.
Östlund: There was an incident in Bologna where some cigarette butts and champagne glasses that were part of an installation were thrown away by a cleaning lady. Then the museum had an insurance problem to deal with. I thought that was quite funny. (Laughs) A Russian artist named Oleg Kulik inspired the monkey imitation performance. He played a dog in a museum in Sweden. There was a sign in the exhibition warning patrons to “beware of the dog.” He actually bit people who got too close. He bit the chief curator’s daughter’s leg so severely that they had to call the police!
Cineaste: How did you decide to cast Terry Notary in the role of the monkey imitator?
Östlund: It was easy. I checked on YouTube for actors doing monkey imitations. He was doing some motion capture to promote one of the Planet of the Apes films. He then acted like a gorilla—and he behaved exactly like a gorilla. So I called him and asked if he wanted to play this performance artist so, for a change, we’d see his own face on screen.
Cineaste: The scene with Dominic West playing an artist dealing with a Tourette Syndrome sufferer during an interview also presents a comic conundrum. On the one hand, the audience and the moderator don’t want to confront a man with a disability since that would be rude. But the man’s disability means that he’s unavoidably rude himself.
Östlund: (Laughs) That came from something I experienced at a play in Stockholm. There was a guy in the audience with Tourette Syndrome. The whole company knew that he was coming. He was given some gloves so he wouldn’t make too much noise when he applauded. In a way, this sort of tolerance is rather beautiful. Even if you have a disability, you should be able to attend a performance at a state-funded theater like anyone else.
Cineaste: I understand that Dominic West’s character was actually based on Julian Schnabel. Have you met Schnabel?
Östlund: No, but I was looking at some clips on YouTube when he was doing an onstage conversation at Art Basel in Miami.
Cineaste: Schnabel seems even more arrogant than your character. You toned him down a bit.
Östlund: Yes, Dominic West shows us a more sympathetic side of this character. There’s one clip from that Art Basel discussion where Schnabel is really arrogant. But I hope he comes to the screening. I’d like to invite him. (Laughs) I heard about the work he’s doing now where he replicates classic paintings and inserts a large purple bowl. Then he gets about a million dollars for each of them.
Cineaste: How did you decide to cast a Danish actor in the role of a Swedish curator?
Östlund: We cast the film in Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, and Helsinki. I wanted to make it a Scandinavian movie. At first, though, I thought of a French actor—Jean Dujardin who starred in The Artist. He was a reference point. The Danish casting director found Claes and I gave him an assignment to write a speech that he could use explaining the concept of “The Square.” He wrote a speech explaining how “The Square” could be used: “My father just died and I need someone to talk to. Could you talk to me for half an hour?” I thought that Claes had a sensitive side that brought some emotion to a very high concept idea. I thought he reacted in a very beautiful way. I used part of his speech in the film.
Cineaste: And since his English is so good, he could easily go on to make English-language films.
Östlund: I hope he does. I think he wants to.
Cineaste: He seemed to have quite a good rapport with Elisabeth Moss. Was their confrontation scene fully scripted?
Östlund: It had a very clear start and a very clear ending. They had various elements and different lines to play with. It was super-important for Elisabeth to have the ability to push him into a corner. The starting point was, which I still love was, “How do we solve this? ” His reaction was, “How do we solve what? What do you think happened between us? (Laughs)
Cineaste: He didn’t think there was a problem at all!
Östlund: Exactly. That creates so much subtext that’s interesting in the social contract between a man and a woman. I was playing around with the dialogue in one of the takes. So I told Claes, “Now you’ll know her name when she asks.” So he replies confidently, “It’s Anne.” That was fun.
Cineaste: I read that there were as many as fifty takes in the bedroom scene between them.
Östlund: It depends on which part of the bedroom scene you’re referring to. But I like to have a number of takes since it allows us to try out a number of things that we otherwise wouldn’t dare to try out. I don’t have that many camera positions each day. The camera is present and then we repeat the scene again and again. Then the actors can take risks in the morning and finally, at the end of that camera position, I can go, “Five takes left. Is everybody ready?” We’re combining repetition with creating a very precise structure, almost simulating the intensity of a very important football game—Four takes left, three takes left. Come on now, last take!” What often happens is that we finally achieve authentic emotion, even if we’ve repeated that take twenty times. That’s the way I like to work. Although the actors are aware of the director’s presence, they almost feel as if they’ve reached this authenticity on their own.
Cineaste: Were you interested in studying the ramifications of the “bystander effect” in the film—the way passersby react when a crime is committed?
Östlund: I was interested in one experiment that was conducted in a classroom where smoke was introduced while students were taking a test. If there were three hundred students in a class, no one reacted. If there were only three, their reactions were much quicker. If there are more people around, responsibility can be avoided more easily. When the term “bystander effect” was invented in the Sixties after Kitty Genovese was murdered in New York, we were encouraged to think that people in modern societies had become colder. I also wanted to introduce the idea that we’re herd animals. We want to shout, “Please bother him, not me.” That was part of the idea of the Terry Notary/monkey imitation scene.
Cineaste: Of course, additional research revealed that some people actually did try to help Kitty Genovese. So it turns out that some of the pessimistic conclusions derived from that event were slightly premature.
Östlund: If you look at sociological experiments, there are lessons we can learn—even if they turn out not to be one hundred percent true. They raise awareness of the possibility that we have trouble taking responsibility when we’re in public spaces. This might also make it possible for us to avoid the passivity or paralysis that plagues people in these types of situations.
The Square is distributed in the United States by Magnolia Pictures.
Richard Porton's revised second edition of Film and the Anarchist Imagination will be published in 2018.
Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 1