Curating Chaos: Ruben Östlund’s 'The Square' punctures the pretentions of the art world
“The dilemma of being a human being.” That’s how Ruben Östlund, the Swedish writer-director of this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner The Square, defines the discrepancy between self-image and actions that contradict it. “We have a very civilized side where we know exactly what’s right,” says the auteur, joining me hours before The Square’s press screening at the 55th New York Film Festival. “But often, we are ashamed of our instincts when they are in conflict with cultural expectations.”
With a deep, incisive curiosity about human psychology, Östlund often places this dilemma at the center of his work. In Involuntary (2008), he explored the clash of conformity and resistance through a series of unrelated stories. In Force Majeure (2014), he took on societal expectations from masculinity with the story of a Swedish family man who fails to live up to the commonly accepted norms of manliness. Now with The Square (a Magnolia Pictures release and Sweden’s official entry to the 2018 Academy Awards), he delves into group psychology, societal power structures and income inequality, using his signature storytelling devices: long takes, biting dialogue and rising tension.
Östlund’s interest in psychology and sociology is a direct result of his upbringing. Both of his parents were teachers. His father taught economics, and thus Östlund instinctively saw human behavior through its lens. His mother taught young students from grades one to three. Östlund recounts, with a bright smile, how she once applied the Solomon-Asch conformity experiment (which studies the influence of the majority on individuals) to a group of nine-year-olds. “I was like, ‘Mama, that sounds kind of harsh. Can you actually do that?’ And then I used it in one of my films, Involuntary. [Putting] an individual into the context [of a bigger structure] was something I was brought up with.”
The Square follows and satirizes the life of the sophisticated art curator Christian (Claes Bang) as he spearheads a catastrophically controversial marketing campaign for his modern art museum’s latest exhibition, fathers his young daughters as a divorced parent, problematically deals with the aftermath of an episode of theft via unorthodox means, getting a child (superbly played by Elijandro Edouard) unfairly in trouble, and navigates the modern-day dating scene. The title of the film refers to the exhibition Christian launches: a literal square in front of his museum, a safe space of equality where simple societal rules like mutual respect and trust must be honored by all who enter it. “I look at that symbolic place more like a pedestrian crossing, which is a beautiful invention if you think about it: We have created an agreement with a couple of lines in the street that is not connected to politics or religion. [It’s about] taking care of and putting trust in each other.”
The idea of the film first came to Östlund when he was making Play (2011) and noticed how frequently people fail to offer help in public spaces. In The Square, Östlund sharply critiques privileged Western societies, increasingly driven by individualism rather than a sense of community, through his affluent lead character’s questionable actions. In the interconnected world of The Square, no one really seems to trust each other. In one key scene, we watch Christian and a journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss) hilariously fight over a condom right after intercourse: Christian is convinced Anne wants to steal his sperm, whereas Anne expects trust and respect. In another, the film’s most pivotal, a fancy fundraiser dinner takes a threatening turn when a performer (the brilliant Terry Notary with an impressive bodily imitation of an ape) physically tantalizes attendees, displaying an extreme case of a social-conformity experiment: Will anyone eventually take on a personal risk and stand up for fellow guests?
Östlund believes there is an unwritten social contract in every public situation, and his dinner party scene is certainly no exception. “[Do you know] where the term ‘bystander effect’ [comes from]? It was in New York  when a woman [Kitty Genovese] was murdered [in front of many others]. The theory is about how we react slower when there are a lot of other people present. I have been interested in looking at these occasions, not to [blame] one individual, but to understand how our behavior [is shaped] from a sociological perspective.” Östlund suggests behavior guidelines for similar potentially dangerous public incidents should be taught in schools. “Perhaps grab the person sitting next to you. Break your paralysis. Then you can create a platform.”
While filming the dinner party scene that highlights one such case, Östlund says he did over 200 takes in four days, spread out on different camera angles. He tried to summon authenticity through rigorous repetition rather than improvisation. “Terry Notary was extremely skillful in creating a scary atmosphere. Extras and everybody around [were affected by that]. The way he moved from table to table, person to person, was all choreographed. There were no surprises. The first day, we [established] how he should move in the room and the second day, we started to shoot in chronological order: coming into the room, [moving], always stopping by the same person. The pattern was set.”
Both in the dinner party scene and other key moments in The Square, sound design also plays a key role in intensifying the action. “I worked with the same sound designer as I did in Force Majeure, Andreas Franck. He really has a very intuitive feeling for creating a great sound landscape. When I'm working with long scenes and takes, sound really is something I have to use in order to push in energy and make the film more dynamic.”
Even though The Square follows a linear story focusing on one person’s journey, structurally, it gives the viewer the impression of a collection of vignettes that can stand on their own as short films, even when viewed outside of their larger context. Östlund says that approaching scenes in this manner has been consistent throughout his filmmaking. “[In most of my films], I haven't been that interested in the storytelling aspect of moviemaking,” the director explains. “I have been interested in what the moving image can actually do. [This is an expression medium] that highlights human behavior. So I really want to build my films of scenes that have the possibility of standing by themselves and mean something by themselves. The biggest [recent] experiences I had of moving images have not been in the cinema. They have been on YouTube,” he adds. “Have you seen the ‘Battle at Kruger’ clip? It's lions and buffalos in a South African safari park. [There is another one] with a cab driver that by mistake ends up in a live-broadcast BBC program, [and] the journalist thinks he's an expert on Internet rights. [As a] film director today, I feel that's what I have to keep up with.”
Asked about other filmmakers in a similar school of storytelling he looks up to, Östlund unsurprisingly brings up the German auteur Michael Haneke, recalling the time he first watched Code Unknown as a film student. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, what a filmmaker.’ I'm very happy that he exists in this space. I think his approach to cinema is fantastic. [His latest film] Happy End is really good. He's not as precise in that movie as he has been before. I don't know where to look or what I should experience. But in the end, it makes [a lot of] sense.”
The Square also pulls from Östlund’s fascination with masculinity, or rather, his assessment of it. “It's interesting to be a man right now in the Western world,” he jokingly tells me. He understands it is now a world where men are rightfully being called out for their longstanding privilege. “I think there are a lot of things you can question about the male behavior and also the female behavior. I tried to do that in The Square. If I just look at my own life, you know, being the father of two, divorced and the collective guilt of being a white man...there are so many nuances that you are maneuvering.”
Östlund confesses that he ultimately thought of Christian as himself and emphasizes that a lot of the situations he deals with are things that either he or a friend of his has experienced in real life. “The condom scene is actually from a friend of mine. In the beginning of the film, [when he gets robbed], that was something that I have experienced. I have been in these marketing meetings [for the promotion of my movies]. I have been in prestigious cultural positions, having people looking up to me in a certain way. When I think about Christian, [I also wonder if] it would be possible for me to act in [a way similar to him]. That's really how I direct every single scene. If I don't find a motivation in myself, then I don't want Christian to do it either. It [only] becomes interesting when I think, ‘I could have done the same thing.’”