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Changing the Social Contract: Ruben Östlund Discusses "The Square"

The Swedish director of the Palme d'Or-winner talks about his creative process, sociological curiosities, and primate preoccupations.
The Square
If Force Majeure, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s seismic 2015 feature, darkly satirized today’s work-obsessed culture through the prism of one family man’s existential identity crisis, his new Palme d’Or winner, The Square, weaves an assured, singular and thematically ambitious tapestry of human behavior and coexistence in the modern world.  Where the former film used a ski resort’s avalanche as its protagonist’s eponymous patriarchal Litmus test, The Square expands its lens beyond the family unit; drawing upon the smug intellectualism, vapid self-seriousness and occasionally pompous decadence of the contemporary art world and its donor class, to effectively probe the moral hypocrisies, vanity and bourgeoisie sensibilities of urbane liberalism.  In doing so, Östlund transforms his film into—among other things—a caustic commentary on a global capitalist society that continues to reward self-interest over social harmony.  In skewering the commercialization of art, The Square effectively draws attention to the well-meaning, though ultimately myopic, worldview of a privileged slice of the population, whose experiences within Stockholm’s social apparatus often bristle against the harsh realities of life for many.  With shots of immigrants, panhandlers and homeless folk peppered throughout The Square’s 150-minute runtime, the film renders the world of the “haves” as an almost ego-driven bubble where money, sex, power and opportunity are inextricably linked.   
A curator for Stockholm’s X-Royal Museum of Contemporary Art, Christian, the film’s hero, has just commissioned a new installation titled “The Square”: a 4x4 meter wire enclosure built into the museum’s cobblestone courtyard.  The square is conceived as a “sanctuary for trust and caring”—a physical space meant to symbolize a commitment to upholding the social tenets of kindness, empathy, trust, compassion, dignity and mutual respect.  Those values are soon put to the test, however, when Christian discovers he’s been the victim of a pickpocketing scheme after ostensibly helping a young woman being attacked on the streets.  Swindled out of his wallet, phone and cufflinks, Christian closely monitors the whereabouts of his belongings using his iPhone’s GPS tracking—and is soon led to a public housing complex in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Stockholm.  Unable to pinpoint the perpetrator’s exact apartment unit, Christian goes on the offensive.  Yet he fails to anticipate the potential fallout of this strategy, and sure enough, he is confronted by one of the complex’s innocent residents, a young Middle Eastern immigrant who’s become a casualty of Christian’s retaliatory measures.  Rather than actively try to rectify the situation, Christian dismisses the boy on more than one occasion—even going so far as to threaten the distressed kid—though his conscience does eventually get the best of him, at which point he attempts to right his wrongs.  Drawing on his cinematic oeuvre, Östlund is once again exploring the contours of masculine weakness; showcasing his fascination with patriarchal standards of masculinity—and those who fail to meet them—with empathy that humanizes Christian, despite his flaws or callous actions. 
The overall dilemma that Christian creates for himself—how to remedy this situation with the young boy—punctures the abstract and placid moral idealism of the elite progressive art scene, and only exists because of a betrayal of the very social contract that Christian fancies himself a part of; a contract whose virtues he espouses in a professional context as it relates to conceptual art, but doesn’t necessarily practice in his personal life.  Yet that’s not to say that Christian is a heartless yuppie who doesn’t display acts of kindness, for when his money and belongings are first returned to him, he’s so overcome with joy that he gives most of it away to a homeless person.  The same thing happens in a later scene, but because Christian is more preoccupied and stressed this time around, he outright dismisses the panhandler.  This moment brings to mind the self-congratulatory adrenaline rush Christian experiences after “rescuing” the female pickpocket—all of which beg the questions: does true altruism exist, or is it conditional?  Are people inclined to help their fellow citizens out of the kindness in their heart, or only when it’s convenient and mutually beneficial for them?  Has society become too distracted, materialistic and narcissistic to be bothered with such notions of selflessness?  By positing such queries, Östlund is effectively hinting at what he envisions to be society’s shift towards misanthropy; where every interaction—however intimate or innocuous—is self-serving and met with cynical skepticism.  He further distills this transactional view of social dynamics in a sidesplitting post-coital scene that sees Christian and his hookup engage in a tug-of-war over his used condom, paranoid that the woman he’s just had a one-night stand with might try to secretly impregnate herself with his sperm.  In Östlund’s world, ego is a formidable force. 
All the while, as Christian and his staff of curators and publicists prepare for The Square’s opening, he receives word that his PR team’s craven and controversial strategy for generating publicity—a YouTube video he did not know of or approve—has sparked public outrage.  Without revealing any details, suffice it to say Östlund’s penchant for pushing the boundaries of decency or taboo are on full and glorious display; with the shock value of the video’s content serving as a hilariously ghoulish indictment of social apathy, to say nothing of the media and public’s symbiotic hand in perpetuating this shameless appetite for sensationalism.  A jarring rebuke to The Square’s Golden Rule-driven utopic idealism, the museum’s viral PR video earns more than a few reflexive belly laughs simply for its committed audacity, as it challenges audiences to question their own responses to such salacious images.  In doing so, Östlund is forcing his viewers to consider whether it’s even possible to achieve such an idyllic social order in a contemporary Western metropolis, given society’s desensitization and disillusionment.  Yet what really makes this scene’s commentary sing is the scathing irony of the PR campaign’s ultimate success: here is a promotional video that’s the antithetical embodiment of the very art it’s successfully promoting.
As provocative and unsettling as these images are, they don’t hold a flame to the film’s brilliantly concocted, intense and surreal standout scene; a set-piece at The Square’s opening gala reception that sees a performance artist by the name of Oleg interact with a banquet hall of wealthy patrons while pantomiming a monkey—and Terry Notary absolutely nails every movement, sound, and facial expression with uncanny Simian precision.  While the patrons first observe this bizarre spectacle with curious and awkward bemusement, the room soon shifts to a palpable sense of discomfort—and ultimately fear—as the “monkey’s” engagements with randomly chosen attendees become increasingly menacing and predatory.  Shooting in real time, Östlund gives the nearly five-minute sequence room to breathe—resulting in a suspenseful, squirm-inducing and shocking piece of performance art that’s buoyed by its undercurrent of mordant humor.  Adding to the scene’s immersive tension is the complete absence of a score, which strips the moment of any cinematic flourishes, and therefore places the audience right inside that banquet hall.  This renders every viewer a complicit spectator and leering voyeur whose temporal, visual and sonic experiences simulate that of the gala patrons.  Staged and filmed in such a way as to implicate audiences, the sequence compels us as viewers to question how we would react in such a disturbing situation—so much so that its suspension of disbelief carries the gravitas of an experimental short film, as Östlund stealthily breaches the social contract between film and filmgoer.  The scene continues to steadily ratchet up the anxiety, building to a climactic crescendo that pierces the posh and refined decorum of these socialites, movers and shakers—a visceral reminder of every human’s animalistic instinct for self-preservation, and how quickly polite society can devolve into feral incivility.
At once a provocative and pensive satire, artistic manifesto, character study, sociological thought experiment and work of performance art, Östlund’s The Square takes a scathing, peculiar and oddly humanistic look at the absurdity that is the modern human condition.  With his formally constructed wide-shots and deliberately restrained camerawork, Östlund’s focus on the pristine interior of buildings (such as the museum and Christian’s apartment) emphasizes the vast and empty white spaces within each frame—an aesthetic approach that mimics the monotonous minimalism and uniform austerity of conceptual art.  The film also mines humor, shock value and pathos from Östlund’s keen eye for human behavior in private and public spaces; as he once again invites viewers to consider their civic responsibility in upholding the square’s social virtues, and the ways in which an individual’s sense of self, well, squares with society’s collective consciousness.  Depicting Stockholm as a kind of hermetic cosmopolitan milieu, The Square juxtaposes its sterile sophistication with the innate and gnarly primitivism that unites people from all walks of life—and it is this existential trap between self-interest and social expectations that ultimately becomes the film’s heart and soul.  
Last month I had the pleasure of interviewing the director following The Square’s US premiere, and decided to pick his brain on everything from his creative process and sociological curiosities, to his primate preoccupations and the meta thrill of watching a Cannes audience squirm in their seats. 

NOTEBOOK: Is it true that the idea for this film originated from a previous art installation you did a few years back, one that was inspired by your father’s stories of growing up in 1950s Sweden? 
RUBEN ÖSTLUND: Yes and no.  Actually, the film is inspired by a string of robberies that took place in a mall in the center of Stockholm not too long ago.  They went on for about three years, or something like that, and there were a lot of adults around.  Yet after reading through all the court files, I realized that it was very seldom that any adult intervened, and the kids didn’t ask for help either.   
I talked to my father about these events, and he told me that when he was six years old, his parents put a tag around his neck with his name and address, and sent him out to the center of Stockholm to play all alone.  It was so obvious that in the 50s you looked at other adults as someone who would help children if they ended up in trouble, and today it’s almost like we look at other adults as a threat.  And this attitude shift was the reason why these robberies could take place in a city center without anyone stepping in, so it was like the kids’ world and the adults’ world were taking place on two parallel levels.  It was in this context that a friend of mine and I came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic space that’s as simple as a pedestrian crossing, where we are reminded of our role as fellow human beings.  I wanted the installation to be a symbolic place that reminds us that we can take responsibility and show trust—a way of trying to change the social contract.
NOTEBOOK: If I’m not mistaken, this earlier installation piece, the outlined square space, was in fact not meant to be an art installation at first.  What were you initially going for? 
ÖSTLUND: I didn’t look at it as an art piece, but rather as a traffic sign—a humanistic traffic sign is what I’ve been calling it.  But then my friend and I were invited to an art museum, and suddenly it became an art piece. [chuckles
NOTEBOOK: Given The Square’s fascination with the way people behave differently in public than when alone (as we see with the character of Christian), it’s interesting to consider the similarities between your square installation and a pedestrian crossing; for both are delineated physical spaces meant to reinforce civil public behavior.  Did you have these dualities—the interplay between symbolic and physical spaces, as well as public and private ones—in mind when filming?
ÖSTLUND: To me, those parallels were always very comparable, because a crossing is a very physical space that tells you exactly where you should walk, and the square is very similar.  If you come into the city, you know that in New York they have actually made a square in order to remind us of our humanism, and this also affects the city outside the borders of the square.  But if you think about the square, you have to wonder, “Do we actually need to have a physical and symbolic place where these values exist?  Don’t they exist outside of the square?”  That is of course the question we have to ask ourselves with The Square
NOTEBOOK: You’ve previously said that the contemporary art scene doesn’t provoke new questions, and yet The Square seems to regard the art scene as the ideal place to ask the very questions you’ve posed.  In delving into social norms and human behavior, was it also your intention to skewer the occasional pretentiousness of that specific culture? 
ÖSTLUND: My idea was to use the contemporary art scene as a backdrop to the film, in the same way that in Force Majeure, a ski resort was the backdrop to what was going on with the family.  So my main goal with this film wasn’t to criticize the art world, but instead use it to discuss the square’s ideas, since it’s natural to verbalize these ideas in an art museum.  But in doing my research for this film, I traveled around to many different contemporary art museums, and what I saw was so much of the same.  There’s a neon sign on the wall, a Warhol piece, a couple of objects on the floor—but the visitors were completely disconnected from the art.  I couldn’t see any connection between the art and what was going on in the world outside the museum’s walls, so that’s something that I of course wanted to criticize, maybe even attack. 
NOTEBOOK: Did you approach this film with the intention that it would double as a kind of sociological piece of performance art?
ÖSTLUND: I was thinking of that specifically when it comes to the monkey imitation performance.  And that scene, I think, is exactly what you said.  I love sociology because I think it has such a humanistic way of looking at human beings, even when we fail.  Sociology isn’t about pointing fingers at the individual and saying, “You did wrong.”  It’s about trying to look at the setup that makes it possible for us to do the wrong thing, and then take some knowledge out of that.  It’s a very sympathetic way of looking at our behavior, rather than being completely focused on specific individuals.  Compare this to the times we are living in right now, which is so much about the individual and pointing fingers and placing guilt. [chuckles]  For me, it’s very connected to American culture, where anyone can be president, and everyone is responsible for his or her actions in a way that doesn’t put the individual into the proper context. 
NOTEBOOK: With this film, you seem very interested in exploring the tension between social expectations and individual self-interest. 
ÖSTLUND: If I try to think of what my goals were for this film, I’m brought back to how the square raises universal questions about society, and the kind of society we want.  It’s a very broad topic, and I wanted to approach that theme first on a society level—“What do we do with this common project?”—but I also wanted to approach it on an individual level.  I wanted to challenge Claes Bang’s Christian with different moral dilemmas that he must face, while at the same time having him believe in this social art project, because I was trying to challenge myself.  In which situations do I fail to live up to these humanistic values? 
NOTEBOOK: Going off your point, The Square is indeed very humanistic in its worldview, but also very animalistic, as we see with that “monkey” scene.  Was there a specific social phenomena or behavior that you wanted to probe in that moment? 
ÖSTLUND: The bystander effect, for sure.  The scene begins with a voiceover announcement; “Soon you will be confronted by a wild animal…” As we all know, the hunting instinct can be triggered by weakness, which is also true for humans.  Don’t you remember how in school, a mob would close in once a weakness was detected in a fellow classmate?  This ability to point someone out from the herd is very animalistic behavior.  If you show fear, the animal will sense it, but if you remain perfectly still and try to hide in the herd, then it’s possible that someone else might be the prey.  And that is the reason why we become paralyzed when scary things happen, because we are hoping “don’t take me, take someone else.”   
In pointing out this behavior, I wanted the setup of that scene to be very simple, where these gala patrons who are seated in their gowns and tuxedos have to deal with this monkey imitator.  And I love the idea of the film being screened in competition at Cannes, where you have another tuxedo dressed audience watching as these characters’ experiences mirror theirs. [laughs] Then the monkey imitator comes in, chases away the alpha male, and approaches a female with the intent to reproduce. [laughs]  In the end, you finally see all these refined people become uncivilized animals. 
NOTEBOOK: Was the meta nature of that scene, as it relates to the Cannes audience’s viewing experience, something you actively considered while filming?  During your creative process, for example, did you have in mind the collective vs. individual experience of watching the film?  Is it meant to be viewed a certain way? 
ÖSTLUND: It’s funny to me, the idea of someone watching the film alone, because they don’t experience the humor in the same way.  I think if you sit together and watch it with other people, the experience becomes more about “Am I allowed to laugh at this?  I have to!”  It’s a release.  Watching the film alone seems much tougher and more serious.  I agree that it’s a serious and important topic, but I really wanted to do it in an entertaining and wild way.
NOTEBOOK: You certainly achieved that!  There’s a reason I keep referencing that sequence, [chuckles] because it was so avant-garde, and succeeded in being simultaneously suspenseful, comical and uncomfortable.  The whole time I found myself anxiously wondering if I should laugh, be concerned or be horrified.  Do you think that shooting in real-time is the only way to produce this kind of lingering tension and discomfort?
ÖSTLUND: A little bit, yes.  Years ago I made a short film called Incident By a Bank, where I was an eyewitness to a failed robbery attempt.  I think it took me a week to shoot, because I wanted to carefully reconstruct the robbery attempt since it was so trivial and yet so dramatic at the same time.  One moment guns are going off, and the next we are standing there and complaining that we can’t zoom with the cellphone cameras we’re using to film the robbery.  It’s this completely absurd, trivial and dramatic thing all at once, and what’s great about real-time is that it doesn’t evaluate the action on different levels—everything is experienced on the same plane.
NOTEBOOK: Would you say The Square explores more darkly comic territory compared to Force Majeure?  I’m thinking, of course, of that viral video the museum’s PR agency makes to drum up buzz for “The Square”.    
ÖSTLUND: No, I think I had the same approach as in Force Majeure.  I guess the darkest part of this film is that monkey imitation scene, but just as with Force, I wanted The Square to be satirical and-- in Sweden, we have something that’s called galghumor, where you’re about to be hanged, but are still making jokes about it. 
NOTEBOOK: Gallows humor.
ÖSTLUND: Is that how you say it? [laughs
NOTEBOOK: Has black comedy always been a part of your artistic sensibilities as a director? 
ÖSTLUND: Not always.  You can see it in some of my old work, but it is much more present in my previous two films.   
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of how The Square compares to your other films, what made you want to venture into the “Hollywood” arena here with the casting of Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West? 
ÖSTLUND: You have to be a bit tactical when you want to be in competition at Cannes.  They want people to be able to walk the red carpet, so having those faces helps.  Claes, for example, is a good-looking guy, and that’s a good thing if you want to get into competition.  The same goes for Elisabeth and Dominic, and even though Elisabeth is big now, I really don’t care if an actor is famous at all when I cast my films.  I didn’t even plan on having an English-speaking actor for Dominic’s part, but he was so good that I had to take him.  Elisabeth was the same—she was the best actress, not to mention very intelligent in using the set-up of each scene for maximum comedy. 
I was a little afraid that some nuance would be lost in directing an English-speaking actor, but I feel more confident after working with them, so I think my next film will be entirely in English.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk a little bit about that film?  Are you currently in the writing stage?
ÖSTLUND: Yes, and it’s quite fun to talk about.  It’s called Triangle of Sadness, which is another term for the wrinkle you get in between your eyebrows from stress.  But that can always be fixed with Botox. [laughs
The main character is a male model, because I think beauty in general is very interesting.  Even if you don’t have money, education or talent, beauty can make you advance in society, especially economically.    
NOTEBOOK: In many ways, beauty is a commodity. 
ÖSTLUND: Exactly.  And despite all the injustice that exists in this world, there’s a universal fairness in anyone being able to win that genetic lottery, regardless of your social or economic status.   
So my main character could’ve easily been a car mechanic, but because of his looks, he’s the face of one of the biggest fashion brands in the world.  But he’s starting to bald, which means he’s losing his economic value and therefore his self-confidence.  So in order to rebrand him, his agent suggests that he get together with a famous girlfriend.  The problem is, he’s a very sensitive guy and wants to be in love. [chuckles
I want to continue exploring the relationship between sex, money and power through images that invert the gender roles we’re used to.  In our patriarchal society, for example, it’s completely normal for a 55 year-old man to be with a very beautiful young woman.  We’re okay with this image because we understand the set-up.  But what happens when you suddenly shift to a matriarchy?  I want my male model to suddenly fall in love with a 55 year-old cleaning lady, and see how her behavior changes once she’s at the top of the social ladder.  I’m really excited about this setup. [laughs] I want this next film to challenge our ideas of the way love is connected to the economics of sex.

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