As his Palme d’Or winning film The Square is at last released in the UK, I talk to Swedish director Ruben Ostlund about the moral quandaries in his mischievous movies. Force Majeure was kickstarted by an avalanche; The Square’s masculine meltdown is sparked by something as small as having your mobile phone nicked….
When you win the Palme d’Or and your movie has an Oscar nomination, the big stars come to you.
Literally, in the case of Swedish director Ruben Ostlund. Twice my interview with him in a London hotel is, with polite apologies, put on hold “for a meeting”. As I wait in the foyer with yet another coffee, I spot Carey Mulligan breeze through the lobby with her headphones on. She waves at me, looks a little lost, wondering if she’s got it all wrong and is supposed to be doing an interview with me? I just point her to the door where Ruben Ostlund is having his meetings and off she goes.
Ruben and Carey over run, so I have to go, because there won’t now be enough time to squeeze The New European in before his next “meeting.” As I leave, I bump into a man with his head down and collar up, coming through the hotel door as if not wanting to be noticed. It’s only Hugh Grant. Fuckity Fuck, indeed.
Ostlund, you see, is mixing London promotion for The Square, his Cannes-winning art-world satire, with attending the previous night’s BAFTAs, where he was nominated for Foreign Film (losing out Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden) and casting for his next film, to be called The Triangle of Sadness.
When actors of this stature schlep across London to meet you, you know you’ve made it. Grant, for example, can barely be bothered to work for anyone these days, so the Swedish stylist much have something everyone wants. Carey’s fitting in her Ostlund session just before she’s due on stage in the first week of her one-woman play at the Royal Court Theatre. In fact, I wonder to myself if she hasn’t left it a bit late to get there, right across town. Knowing her, she’ll take the Tube anyway.
I go off to do my bit on the BAFTAs for the BBC and return to find Ostlund full of sleek, nordic energy, buzzed about his new project. “The actors seem interested,” he deadpans.
Remarkably, he’s very happy to pitch the film to me, just as he has to Hugh and Carey. It’s called The Triangle of Sadness and it’s about the fashion industry, a ageing male model and a female model who want out of the business, and it’s set on the international fashion scene, in hotels, on a luxury cruise ship and on a deserted island.
There isn’t a script because, despite pitching the film since last summer, Ostlund hasn’t written it yet. “I never do,” he says. “I like to talk about the film to everyone before I can sit down and write it. When you’re trying to talk about it, you realise where the problems are and you figure out how to tell it better, so once I’ve got it as a pitch in one piece, that’s how I work out the structure and how to bring in some elements that make it work better. I usually know if it’s working by the look in the eyes of the people I’m telling it to.”
Did Carey like the sound of it? “Actually, yes she did.”
But how does anyone give you money for your films then, if there’s no script? “I think whatever you write down, people like financiers form an opinion immediately as they read it, a picture in their head and they can easily react against it, and think ‘oh that’s crazy, I don’t like that’. But when I pitch it to convince them, I say that this what I want to do, and that I have a good clue about it, but it’s still fluid and can change, then they remain very open to it.”
You can sort of see how it works. Ostlund is smart and neat in his skinny Scandi clothes. He’s charming and attractive, with nice hair and he looks capable and organised. He smiles a bit nervously when not talking and you can tell he likes to be control. Actually, he looks a bit like Christian, the suave, modern art curator who’s the main figure in The Square, superbly played by actor Claes Bang.
I’d trust him with my money. Or with my performance.
Ostlund had enough smarts to cast stars such as Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West in small parts in The Square, which has helped him break out. It’s a growing trend, this filmic internationalism, noticeable in European directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Paolo Sorrentino, Jacques Audiard and now Ostlund.
But it’s not just the casting of familiar faces that marks such work – the director always maintains their signature style and in Ostlund’s case in The Square, the camera’s gaze is fixed firmly on the bourgeoisie and their moral conundrums.
In his previous film, Force Majeure, Ostlund brilliantly ruined the ski holiday for me. If you’ve seen it, you can’t go to a ski resort with the same mind set ever again. The story of a couple on holiday with their kids whose marriage disintegrates after the husband runs away from an oncoming avalanche and briefly abandons his family, it made Ostlund a name to watch. A former skier, he learned his trade making ski movies and shot Force Majeure in the French resort of Les Arcs.
“What interests me is really the question: how do we build a society? I think we’re back at the beginning of a civilisation, so we have to construct new rules by which we live and by which we can understand human behaviour in a world where the media fosters a climate of conflict. We live in a tension economy.”
Ostlund speaks along theoretical lines, like a sociologist, a topic the Swedes were famous for in the 1960s and 70s. His films are like the dramatic reconstructions of social experiments, humans playing out the possibilities posed by a certain moral question or physical situation.
The Square began life as a modern art experiment drummed up by Ostlund, another ‘what if?’ scenario pitch, rather than any fully formed script. The idea was to draw a white square on the ground inside which forms of human behaviour would be stipulated by a Golden Rule, whereby people behave kindly toward each other. Ironically – and you get the feeling Ostlund is all about the irony – the idea actually caught on as an art piece and is now installed in three Swedish cities, including Varnamo and Gothenburg.
“Yes, you can stand in the square and people passing by will help you and act kindly to you,” says Ostlund, not sounding at all surprised that his concept has spread. “In Varnamo, people use it and stand in there as a protest space, such as to draw attention to refugees, or benefit problems for the handicapped, so it has become civically useful. But once there was a flower left in the square, there saying “Thank you for helping us find our son” . So far, it’s mainly pleasant things…”
In the film, the Square is drawn on the forecourt of the modern art museum curated by Christian and the museum’s publicity department decide to use a cool ad agency to publicise their exhibit with a youtube video that will go viral. The plan backfires badly on Christian who is, meanwhile, having an affair with an art journalist (Elisabeth Moss) and is still a bit traumatised by having his mobile phone stolen in an elaborate “sting” at the very start of the film.
He concocts a plan of revenge using the Find My Phone app, another idea that goes horridly wrong.
“It’s all just rules, like traffic rules,” says Ostlund. “It’s a miracle that people respect them – a pedestrian crossing, it’s just lines on a road but it creates a social contract that is generally agreed on but our society has worked hard to achieve those rules, same as traffic lights, that we stop at red and go at green. You can always draw up new rules, and it’s amazing how people will follow them.”
He cites the example, known as Dagen H, when in 1967, Sweden changed overnight from driving on the left to driving on the right. Says Ostlund: “Accidents actually lessened and the predicted chaos didn’t happen, but it took a lot of work, of advertising and PR to instruct the people and get them all on side with the idea. So these societal agreements are possible.”
Aside from the central symbol of The Square, the film take obvious satirical swipes at the world of modern art, some of them slyly amusing. There’s the cleaners who accidentally hoover up some dirt that was part of an exhibit; there’s a pile of chairs that teeter and fall as Christian and his lover are having a break-up argument; and then there’s the gala dinner performance piece that goes, like most things in Christian’s immaculate life, terribly awry.
It’s the key moment in the film – or key 11 minutes – a painfully extended sequence in which an artist named Oleg (and played by American physical actor Terry Notary) pretends to be an ape and takes his character way too far until he’s flinging the silver service cutlery and practically assaulting a female guest. Again, it’s part of Ostlund’s experiment, finding the animalistic behaviour in humans, our inner ape and, as the black-tie art benefactor audience sits still and watches this ape artist, an examination of our herd instinct.
It’s a brilliant, breathless scene that deserves to go down as one of the great moments in recent European cinema, as does Ostlund’s avalanche scene in Force Majeure. Both have been stand-out highlights of recent Cannes film festivals and both films won top prize in their category. In fact Ostlund become the first Swedish director to win the Palme d’Or in 66 years.
“Oh I wanted to be in competition in Cannes,” admits the film maker who famously made a viral video of himself howling with disappointment when Force Majeure missed out on an Oscar nomination in 2014.
“I made The Square to be in Cannes, specifically for that. And when you get selected for the main competition, you want it to go well and when they call you back for the prize giving night, you want to win something, and you don’t want to share the screenplay prize with Yorgos Lanthimos or anyone, and yes, you want to win the Palme d’Or.”
I imagine Ostlund has as detached and ambivalent a view of the film world as he does about ski resorts, the art business and, now, fashion. He answers with more examples of sociological experiments: a story about zebras with dots painted on them, one about the hierarchy of fashion shoot smiles (models smile in shoots for the cheaper brands like Zara to make you feel included, but for Gucci or Dior, they don’t smile so the consumer feels sneered at, worthless and has to buy their way in to the cool crowd); one about the Swedish political party whose logon looked like a penis; and then another one, about a friend of his on a stag party that went so badly wrong that his fiancee called off the wedding.
“I guess I look at the crisis of white male privilege,” he says, finally. “We’re living in a time when we’re having a re-evaluation of the structure of male behaviour. So in all these stories, we identify with the situation and ask: what would I do in the same context? When I talk about my films that I always find a connection to a sociological experiment.”
I feel compelled to ask him, then, about the sociological experiment of Brexit, the Yes or No, Leave or Remain. He smiles his brief flicker of a grin, or a grimace, hard to tell. “Aha, you see these questions of Yes or No, they usually end up close to 50/50. What we have now is media crisis, our rules have been pushed away in order to create conflicts. Of course a democratic election needs media exposure but now it’s filtered through a very radical language that plays on our herd instinct.”
On that flourish, his phone rings. We’ve over run our time and he’s got another meeting, someone waiting in the foyer. He dashes out, coolly but quickly, and I pack away my notes and saunter after him.
He’s looking around the crowded foyer and a tall man with a beard and woolly hat approaches. I notice that it’s Tom Hiddleston, who shakes my hand and winks. “This is Ruben Ostlund,” I say, presenting the star English actor to the Palme d’Or winning Swedish director. “I think you’re going to have an interesting time.”
And the two disappear for your everyday chat about fashion, male crisis and Swedish sociological experiments.
This interview appears in the New European.