Ruben stlund: All my films are about people trying to avoid losing face

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 .”

Watch the trailer for The Square.

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 .”

A still from Ostlund’s breakout 2014 movie Force Majeure. Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection/ Rex

Or to put it another way: there’s nothing incorrect with the occasional rascal ingredient. Ostlund feels that the process of directing should be as loose-knit and responsive as possible. This, he says, is the Scandinavian style. Keep the script fluid, even during shooting. Foster your performers to discover their roles in the moment. It’s a method that suited Claes Bang, a 50 -year-old veteran of Danish theatre. But for Moss and West- used to the more regimented practices of US television- Ostlund’s approach caused all manner of headaches.

He pullings a face.” You encourage them to improvise. You tell them:’ Always save your energy at the beginning of the day because I want the maximum energy at the end of the day ‘. But even if you say this, they don’t really understand until they experience it. For Elisabeth Moss, especially, it was hard, because she thought I didn’t like what she was doing. But for me this way of working is normal .”

And how about West? “Well,” says Ostlund.” Starting out, I was scared of the idea of a hierarchy of performers. I worried they would come in and demand their own big trailer and all of that. And I love Dominic- I think he’s great. But at the start of the shoot he was always coming on to set last. So in the end I took Claes to one side and said,’ Claes , now you wait until I call you to come. Because you are the one who should come in after Dominic .'” He snorts.” It took maybe three days to resolve. After that it was fine .”

The second cigarette dangles unlit from his mouth. The lighter has somehow concealed itself under a napkin. Ostlund mimes mopping sweat from his forehead. For a moment he thought he’d lost another one.

The director was created far away from the hurly-burly- on the small island of Stryso off the southern coast of Sweden. His mother was a educator and painted sceneries on the side. It was she, he says, who first taught him to trust his vision, to remain true to his instincts. Then afterwards, analyse at the Gothenburg film school, he found himself electrified by Harmony Korine‘s Gummo and Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown – a pair of art-house classics that caught human life in the raw. These, above all, depicted him what a fiction movie could achieve.

Elisabeth Moss as American journalist Anne in The Square. Photo: Allstar/ Magnolia Pictures

Apropos of nothing, he tells me a story about shooting his 2005 short Autobiographical Scene Number 6882 . Ostensibly the movie is about an alpha male, Martin, who wants to impress his friends by jumping off a bridge, but the drama tackles all of Ostlund’s favourite topics: group-think, bravado and the fear of social disgrace. An old boy alerts Martin not to jump, pointing out that a diver recently died in the exact same spot. And as a result, Martin finds that he really can’t walk away.

Ostlund decided he wanted the camera dangled out over the water, shooting the side of the bridge from mid-air. This required the crew to construct a tower with an extendable arm, a task that took all day. When he saw the image on the monitor, though, he realised that the shooting was all wrong. He was an untested young film-maker supervising a crew of old hands. He didn’t want to admit defeat.

” Should I say’ Thanks, that’s great’ and merely shoot it anyway- knowing that I was never going to use that image? No, because if I did that I’d be exactly like the man in my cinema , not wanting to lose face. So I had to gather everyone together and say:’ Look, I’ve made a mistake .’ I was afraid there would be a revolt, that I’d never work again. But what actually happened was that the crew abruptly respected me in a way they hadn’t before. By the purposes of the act of acknowledging debility, I came away with more authority .”

His next project is called Triangle of Sadness . It’s about two catwalk models and will be his first predominantly English-language production. The success of Force Majeure and The Square have put the director on the studios’ radar and I have the sense he may be drifting wests, towards an American career. He accepts that he’s not entirely ruling it out. But the man goes with conditions; he has his own moral code.

He refuses, for example, to kill anybody on screen.” So many directors kill people left and right. I have never experienced anything like that in my life. And I want my films to be true to my experience .”

Occasionally an American producer will send him a script. If it’s littered with corpses, they’ll swear blind it’s a love story. He wants no part of it.” The industry is perverted when it comes to violence. Of course it’s an easy way to create a dramatic event. But my view is that human beings are copycats- we imitate what we consider. If you’re reproducing pictures of men running around with firearms, people will imitate that. Look at any high-school shooting. The images the murderer take of themselves in the mirror. It’s so obvious to me that they’re copying a character .”

He draws on his cigarette.” Apparently it’s the same with our depictions of romance. People who love romantic comedies- they’re the ones who get divorced the most. They move on to the next partner. They move on to the next romcom .”

Our hour together is up; we must move on ourselves. I meet my notepad, phone and MiniDisc and leave the director to finish his cigarette at the table- and it is only later, back on the Croisette, that I realise I’ve unknowingly stolen his replacing lighter as well. I genuinely ought to take the thing back except I don’t think I can face it. What would Ostlund have done? How would his characters have responded? Have I, in some small route, broken the social rules of The Square ?

Dominic West( centre) as artist Julian in The Square. Photo: Allstar/ Magnolia Pictures

Months afterwards I speak to the director again. This time he’s in London, poised to fly out to LA for the Oscars. The Palme d’Or, it transpires, was only the beginning. After The Square ‘ s first appearance, Ostlund took it back to the editing suite, switched things around, tightened the last 20 minutes, and then submitted it for the Academy Awards.” It’s like being a theatre director, right ?” he says.” The piece is constantly evolving and changing. It’s important not to have too much reverence .” He says he has high hopes of winning the best foreign cinema Oscar (” I want to tick this big thing off my listing “). On the night, though, he loses out to the Chilean drama A Fantastic Woman .

But in the intervening 10 months the landscape has shifted. Hollywood has grown darker; the US film industry is in spasms. The toppling of Harvey Weinstein has exposed a culture of abuse, with a recent survey reporting that 94% of female employees have experienced sexual harassment or assault. Ostlund admits that he had heard stories in the past. He simply hadn’t realised how bad it could be.” Again, we have to look at the various kinds of images that we reproduce. Young violent men. Females as sexual objects. So we can’t merely set the blamed on certain someones. We have to set the entire culture in context. How did we get here? What do we do now ?”

I wonder if he knows what he’s getting into. Come to think of it, what’s he doing in the Oscar race anyway? Isn’t the notion of an awardings competition antithetical to the communal spirit of The Square ? It involves one picture beating out the other nominees, hogging the glory, taking the whole space for itself.

“That’s very harsh,” he sighs.” But you are right. The nominees all share the attention beforehand- and that is why awardings are good. They bring attention to good and interesting films. But you’re right, in the end it’s unfair. Life is unfair .”

While we’re on the subject of moral quandaries, I figure I can ask him to resolve one of my own. Somewhere, probably, I still have his cigarette lighter. Ought I to have brought it back to him that day in Cannes? It’s a trifling thing but it’s been nagging at my conscience.

Ostlund mulls this dilemma like a cross-legged sage. He weighs up the evidence then delivers his verdict.” I don’t think you did anything wrong ,” he says ultimately.” One, because the value of the lighter was such that you didn’t need to bring it back. And two, because don’t you think lighters change hands all the time? Lighters are part of the social contract between us. If it’s my lighter, it’s your lighter. I share it with you .”

The Square is out in the UK on 16 March

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