No one is safe from the satirical grip of the Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund. Even the audiences and jury at Cannes 2017, where his latest filmThe Square received multiple awards, were no more than a joke at his expense. "The aim of the film was that we should be accepted in competition," he explained. "I loved the idea that when the competition films screen, the tuxedoed audience are sitting and watching another tuxedo dressed audience being confronted by this performance artist."
The scene Östlund describes is just one of the many insane occurrences in The Square that seem completely normal within the confines of the world he's created. A gala of elitist modern art appreciators have gathered together for a fancy benefit dinner, only to find themselves terrorized by a performance artist who is fully devoted to his art of imitating a gorilla. It's a pretty meta-prank to be playing on the high society of Cannes, but it is a pretty meta film, after all.
Östlund's "The Square" won the Palmes d'Or at Cannes this year.
Östlund's art, however, is far more subtle than that of a gorilla-crazed actor stomping on the tables of wealthy benefactors. The themes presented inThe Square are not easily discernable, but instead, are best contextualized by the art piece upon which the film itself is based. The Square is a zoned out section of concrete place where people must trust and take care of each other in a world where trust is hard to come by.
Below are some highlights from a Q&A with Östlund following the press screening of his film at the New York Film Festival. When it comes to social satire, the director is truly in a league of his own.
Put the audience in your characters' shoes
Östlund shed some insight on the unique way he writes his characters, explaining, "What I always try to do is, when foolish behavior is possible for a character, I try and create a way for the audience to feel that it’s also possible for them. So they would say, 'I could also have done that!'."
Östlund focuses on creating characters from a psychological standpoint, or as he puts it, "In order to create an understanding from the behavioristic perspective." He does this by "not making it a character issue, rather setting up the situation so we understand that this mechanism is possible for the audience also. So there’s almost like a sociological approach to the thematic, rather than having the protagonist/antagonist set up of for films."
Weaker characters are more interesting
The male protagonists from both Östlund's Force Majeure and The Square have one trait in common: they're pathetic. "If you look at it the opposite way around and you only are showing strong characters that are dealing with dilemmas in a film in a very heroic way and doing the right thing, then it's more of like an example that you should try and live up to. It’s building culture in a different way really," Östlund theorized.
"We are an animal. But at the same time, we are a rational creature that is trying to be civilized."
"I’m more interested in making it possible for us to identify with behavior that maybe we are not that proud of. And the reason that I’m interested in male characters, especially with these last two movies, is that I feel its very interesting to be a man these days," Östlund continued. "I don’t know if we are the first generation, I think it’s happened before also, but nowadays you really are questioning your role as a man. You are looking at your privilege and you are almost born into a collective guilt. In which way are you actually contributing to keeping this patriarchy alive?"
Man or beast?
The protagonist of The Square is like many modern artists in that he clings to some strong ideals to make sense of society. The same could be said of Östlund himself. The problem is we aren’t always able to live up to the ideals that we preach.
"For me, that’s really the breaking point for when human beings get interesting," he remarked of the entire species. "You know, we are not an animal, and we are an animal. But at the same time, we are a rational creature that is trying to be civilized. And the conflict for us as a species really happens at this breaking point between being trapped in our needs and our instinct and also at the same time trying to be fair to each other and trying to control those instincts."
On casting a species in between
To really bring this point home, Östlund's film actually features a real live monkey along with the aforementioned performance artist in the introduction above. To cast that performance artist, he literally typed "actor imitating monkey" into Google to see what he could find. He landed on Terry Notary, who is a staple in the Planet of the Apes franchise, and most recently played Kong in Kong: Skull Island. It was an easier decision than you might expect.
"You could see directly in a very technical, skillful way, how an actor could imitate a gorilla, a monkey, and an orangutang," Östlund remembered. "And I mean, what kind of acting has this kind of direct approach? Even a kid can watch and say, 'That actor is the best at being a monkey.' But when it comes to who’s playing Hamlet and things like that, you need a lot of background knowledge. Bringing down acting to imitating a monkey, then it's like comparable to soccer or football. We have a relationship immediately with how good the performance is. I have been quite interested in that kind of acting for a long time."
"The Square" Credit: Magnolia Picures
The Swede stays in the picture
The film also features performances from Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, marking the first time Östlund has worked with an international cast. Despite this, he insisted the film remain Scandinavian in tone.
"What is important when you look at The Square and Force Majeure," Östlund began. "I think that you can feel or sense in a way that they are made in a Scandinavian context. And I think that is interesting for a foreign audience because you can tell that there’s some cultural difference where you can’t tell what it is. Of course, you are thinking a lot of the things are ‘typical Scandanavian.’ I really want to try to keep that approach to the thematics or topics that I’m dealing with. I want to keep that Scandinavian look on things when I’m looking at the topics of the films."
Anything can happen in this movie
Watching an Östlund film is an electrifying experience. Not due to explosions or gore, but because he makes a point of keeping the audience on its toes. Even his family dramas seem to turn into thrillers at some point. "When you build a contract with the audience as to what kind of film you are looking at, they feel secure," Östlund explained. "I love when you put in an element that breaks that contract and makes the audience go, ‘woah, hey, wait a minute.’ Like this chimpanzee coming into the apartment is completely normal. Anything can happen in this movie. I wanted to have a wilder approach and not be too strict when it comes to the feature film format."
"The Square" Credit: Magnolia Pictures
Shoot in real-time
"I’m really, really drawn to the real-time aspect of films," Östlund cooed of the films that have influenced him in the past. It's the constraints in particular that seem to excite him the most. "You don’t cut in order to highlight certain things that must be experienced in the real-time aspect of what’s going on. It's something that I have tried to use in many of my films."
"Of course, you are put up to a challenge then, as a director, because as soon as there is something that is not authentic you feel it immediately and then you can’t cut," Östlund admits. "So you have to create a real-time aspect shot that works from the beginning to the end. That for me creates a certain kind of quality that is much more striking and that affects me more. What I wanted to do in this film is combine the idea of real-time aspect in some scenes and sometimes have the possibility to go up into a more dynamic tempo where I can give the audience energy again to go back into another real-time scene."
"If I watch it together with someone else, then the content is something that I have to reflect on."
The ever-present streaming debate
It wouldn't be a festival Q&A without someone asking the director how he felt about the streaming industry. Östlund, however, had an answer along the lines of which we hadn't heard before. "What I really, really like about the cinema, and what I think we should build, is the cinema culture. The cinema culture meaning that we are looking at things together. I have to approach the content in a different way then when I am at home and I don’t have to care about the content really. But if I watch it together with someone else, then the content is something that I have to reflect on. And of course, it can be a collective experience that gets much stronger because you are looking at it together."
He then went on to provide a novel solution. Perhaps filmmakers should stop looking at themselves as if they're victims. "I think that the most important thing is that we build the culture of cinema," Östlund continued, "I think if every director in Sweden and Europe that has public funded money were obligated to go to ten different cinemas in Sweden, on the countryside, for example, present our film and do an event in order to build the culture of cinema, the idea of looking at things together, that would build a culture of cinema. But right now we are hoping for making a fantastic movie that would bring back the audience to the cinema. That’s the wrong way. We have to build the idea about going to the cinema".