The Swedish director of Force Majeure and The Square, starring Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, on the absurdity of screen violence and procuring drama in the oddities of human behaviour
Ruben Ostlund is the rugged adventurer of Swedish film, the man who came down from the mountain to sun himself by the Med. I first meet the director on a posh restaurant terrace at the Cannes film festival. He’s easy to spot among the immaculate diners, perched at a corner table and clasping a mug of coffee as though to keep his hands warm. Ostlund is bearded and rumpled and reeks of the outdoors- a child of nature be submitted to gatecrash high society. He says he loves the Alps; he loves to ski. He spent most of his 20 s shooting extreme athletic videos.” Then I get borne of resorts. Too many lift queues .”
I guess the ski slope’s loss might be cinema’s gain. Or maybe he’s just swapped one extreme athletic for another. Ostlund’s latest cinema, The Square , crash-landed on the celebration as a last-minute addition, still warm from the editing suite( and would afterwards make off with the all-important Palme d’Or ). It’s a lovely, freewheeling piece of work- a comedy that starts out as a irony on modern art and then jumps the fencing to embrace the whole world, riffing on themes of public space and personal responsibility. The film’s title refers to a utopian free zone that is marked out on the street outside a Stockholm museum.” The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring ,” the accompanying brass plaque explains.” Within it we all share equal rights and obligations .”
Before it became a film, The Square was actually a physical square. Ostlund and his producer Kalle Boman installed it as a social experimentation at the Vandalorum Museum in Varnamo, Sweden in 2014. On the opening night, drunken youths stole the plaque. Afterwards the square became a base for buskers, beggars and protesters. Office employees gathered to eat lunch on sunny days. Lovers proposed within its borders. In this way the installation took on a life of its own.” We were no longer in control of the square ,” Ostlund says.” How it is used is up to the people of the city. If they abuse it, it reveals something about them. If they treat it well, it says something interesting, too .” All these notions would seed and water his film.
Beyond the hotel terrace, music blares and cars honk. Ostlund slots a cigarette in his mouth but then can’t find his lighter. He checks his breast pocket, he checks his trousers. He appeals to the diners at a neighbouring table. Finally the publicist scurries across with a replacing. She says this has happened before and will probably happen again.” I’m like his own personal Pez-dispenser .”
The Square , as luck would have it, is loaded with such fleeting social transactions. People call out for assistance and are either obliged or ignored. Some gambits pay off and others bring tragedy. The Danish performer Claes Bang gives a tremendous performance as Christian, chief curator at Stockholm’s Royal-X Museum- a human by turns insecure and honest, vain and generous. Christian wants to establish a utopian free-zone outside his institution. But he also wants to take revenge on a pickpocket who stole his wallet and phone. From here, the cinema sends him down all manner of rabbit-holes. He comes slip-sliding through posh gala dinners and across polished gallery floors, bumping up against brittle American journalist Anne( played by Elisabeth Moss ), and preening visiting artist Julian( Dominic West ). Christian’s task is on the line and his dignity in tatters.” I’m a semi-public figure ,” he cries at one point. Which in a sense we all are.
The thing is, Ostlund says, he has never considered himself as a fiction film director. The scheme was always to make documentaries. He fell into drama nearly by accident and scored a breakout hit with 2014′ s avalanche tale Force majeure , in which a middle-class dad abandons his family at the first whiff of threat- and then compounds the crime by lying about it. Human behaviour is what fascinates him: how people respond to a crisis; how they rub against the wider environment. For better or worse, Ostlund’s characters are defined by split-second decisions. “Basically,” he says,” all my films are about people trying to avoid losing face .”
The Square , for example, contains a fabulous scene in which Dominic West’s artist is interviewed on stage at a theatre. Julian claims to be most fascinated by” human responses to art” and yet he is thrown off his stride by a man with Tourette syndrome, who sporadically bellows profanities from the floor.” Fuck off !” “the mens” explodes. “Cocksucker!” The remainder of the audience don’t know where to look.
Ostlund explains that this episode, too, was lifted from experience.” I have a good friend who’s a theatre director in Sweden ,” he says.” And one night I was sitting in the audience watching the play when this guy starts clapping and then shushing himself. Clapping and shushing. But very loudly, you know, everybody could hear him. So we’re all standing here and our attention is split. What’s more interesting? The play on the stage or the man in the seat? And every time the actors did a loud scene, the man would get more excited. So now the actors are frightened!’ Oh my God, I’m coming to the scene where I have to raise my voice and that’s only going to set him off ‘.” Ostlund bursts out laughing.” It was likely the best play I’ve ever seen in my life .”
I tell him the theater should have the man there every night.” Well now ,” he says.” That’s basically what they did. Because it turns out that this guy is very well known. The theatre personnel like him. The ensemble knows that he’s coming.’ Our friend is here ‘. And that’s a beautiful thing, a tolerant thing .” Ostlund reaches for a second cigarette.” The only change now is that he wears these thick woollen gloves ,” he says.” That route he doesn’t attain so much noise when he claps .”
Make sure to visit: CapGeneration.com