When The Square unexpectedly took home the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May, it all but ensured that Ruben Östlund’s unusual social satire would get a major release stateside. And with the film finally hitting theaters this week just as the opening bell of awards season gets set to ring, the Swedish director finds himself in familiar territory.
His previous film was Force Majeure, a chic psychodrama that used the gradual rupture of a seemingly idyllic marriage to explore human behavior and the societal codes that burden men. Darkly comic and sharply observed, the film was an instant sensation, earning Östlund an Oscar nomination that officially put him on the map.
In many ways, The Square is a spiritual sequel to Östlund’s 2014 breakout—a series of uncomfortable vignettes meant to prod and to provoke. Here, Östlund’s hapless test subject is Christian (Claes Bang), an acclaimed curator at a modern art museum in Stockholm, whose latest installation, also called The Square, is about to debut. Like in Force Majeure, there’s an inciting incident that bursts Christian’s carefully constructed bubble and sends him tumbling towards chaos.
Using the absurdity of the art world as a springboard, Östlund once again takes dead aim at behavioral constructs, asking us to confront our own insecurities and why it is we do the things that we do. So when we got a chance to speak to him recently, we decided to ask him the exact same thing. Here’s Östlund on the concept of heroism, what he hates most about the contemporary art world, and what he’ll do when Hollywood comes knocking on his door.
Your films often deal with men trying to grapple with their own insecurities. Are you acutely aware of your own insecurities as both a filmmaker and as a man?
As a filmmaker I feel quite confident. It’s something that I enjoy, including the obstacles that come with it. But as a man I have a lot of insecurity in terms of how I should behave, and trying to live up the role of being a man and all the stereotypes that are associated with that.
Are your characters—first Tomas in Force Majeure and now Christian in The Square—in some way versions of yourself?
Yes, they are. Many of the things that are in both films have happened to me or that have happened to close friends of mine.
They’re men who are confronted with situations that require a quick response, either instinctual or intellectual. Have you ever been confronted with a dangerous situation in which your gut told you to do one thing but your intellect told you to do another?
I never experienced anything like the Force Majeure avalanche situation, but I have friends who have been in quite similar situations. One that I can tell you about happened to a friend who was about to get married. His friends were going to have a bachelor party for him and they planned to kidnap him as a prank. They dressed up in ski masks and had machine guns, and when they went to his apartment he was standing in the hallway with his soon-to-be wife. He got so scared, he started hiding behind his girlfriend. They had a problem trying to get over that, two weeks before they were supposed to get married.
How do you feel about the concept of heroism? Is a hero someone who listens to their instinct over their intellect?
I think people are more likely to be heroic if they have the right knowledge about a situation. Do you know about the Milgram experiment? They asked participants to give electric shocks to test subjects. The ones that said, “no, I will not do it” had some knowledge of the situation. The knowledge makes them strong enough to say no.
In the world of cinema, we love the story of the hero, and we say that if you are a hero, it’s because of something in the core of your soul. It’s not about that you have knowledge or that you know how to read a situation. For example, in Force Majeure’s avalanche sequence, if you’re sitting on one side of the table, then maybe that will change your reaction completely. If you’re on the other side of the table that might also change the way you react. So the setup of the situation is very important to how we react. I also read an investigation about the sinking of the MS Estonia and who survived and who died. It was men of a certain age that survived, and the ones that died were women and children. So when it comes to an extreme situation when survival is at the forefront—even though we men have learned that we should sacrifice ourselves for our country or for our family, when survival instinct is put in, culture is put out. If we are not trained, then we act selfishly and it’s really not strange. We want to survive.
You spent a lot of time in museums around the world in preparation for this film. Did you find it difficult to connect with the more abstract work you were seeing?
I saw a lot of contemporary art in Europe and North America and you see a lot of the same stuff wherever you go—a piece of neon art, signs on the wall and some mirrors. I think it’s important to look at what we’re using the art for. Is it a collection of expensive art pieces, or does it actually have a connection to what’s going on outside the walls of the museum? A contemporary art museum is a place where we can discuss what kind of society we want and who we are, and very often it doesn’t feel that way.
Do you reject the fact that the art industry is so wealthy and that value is usually associated with an artist’s pedigree or reputation over the quality and substance of the work?
Definitely. When you walk through the galleries here you understand that houses need something on the wall and this art is very often about decoration. That’s OK, of course, but I think we really have to be able to criticize contemporary art in the same way we’re willing to criticize cinema. What are we doing with this expression? Are we using it to say anything important or are we just trapped in convention?
Your films are very much situational comedies that explore human behavior, but they’re made with your very distinct sensibilities. Do you see yourself as a contemporary to men like Larry David, who traffic in the uncomfortable?
It’s funny that you mention Larry David. I met him last night at a dinner for the first time. I definitely can relate to standup comedy as a whole and the way they use dilemmas and situations that are hard to handle. Their approach is very humanistic because they’re exposing themselves and they’re exposing their own vulnerability, their own fear, their own shame and their own prejudice in order to make other people understand themselves and look at themselves. So I definitely relate to Larry David in that way.
Some would categorize your films as intellectual pursuits. With that said, do you ever see yourself working in Hollywood and making movies for mainstream audiences?
I make all my movies with my own production company in Sweden and I have 100-percent control of the movies. What I hope to do is to bring my style to whatever I do so that audiences will relate a certain kind of style to my name. I want to find a combination of bringing in a wider audience but to also maintain my brand. Rather than going to the U.S., I often think of bringing the U.S. to Sweden. I think about those things because I’m scared of going to the U.S. I’m scared of losing control.
Does that mean you also don’t enjoy watching typical Hollywood blockbusters, particularly ones that aren’t grounded in reality?
I really don’t do that. Of course, I could be entertained, but I want to do something else. I want us to focus on honesty. I think there are more important ways of telling a story. Of course that’s not to say all American cinema is that way. Of course there are filmmakers there who are dealing with things that are interesting. But Hollywood studios are used to not taking any risks when it comes to expression, and I consider that very boring.