Mixed Media

Ruben Ostlund: “We Are All Born Into A Kind Of Collective Guilt”

Ruben Ostlund

At NYFF, Ruben Ostlund, director of Palme d’Or winning new film The Square, says that “so often we want to do the right thing, but then it’s too late.”

Ruben Ostlund got his start in filmmaking ski videos, a somewhat fitting rise for a Swedish director. In 2014, he made a film called Force Majeure about a family of Swedes skiing at a resort in the Swiss Alps, until when a freak avalanche causes a young father to leave his children behind under the pretense of danger.

Emotionally ambiguous, stunningly shot, and cuttingly satiric, the movie was a good summation of Östlund’s strengths as a director, and it introduced him to an international audience. I saw the film in theaters and laughed cringingly as the family reckoned with their patriarch’s spinelessness, but what I remember most about it now was the sound – the persistent, delicately timed thunderclaps of avalanche dynamite being detonated across the mountainside, coupled with the ethereal, sweeping score.

Östlund’s new film, The Square, is an artistic maturation not unlike the growth between Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). And this is a pretty level comparison, since, like Quentin Tarantino, Östlund seemingly came out of nowhere this year snatched the Palme d’Or at Cannes, putting a lot of weight on the revolutionary, cycle-breaking aspects of his new film. The film stars Claes Bang, Terry Notary, and Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss.

Ruben Ostlund:  “I’m interested in what it means to be a man these days, we are all born into a kind of collective guilt.”

A sly combination of seemingly unrelated events working themselves into a harmonic dissonance around the life of Christian (Claes Bang) the rich, vapid curator of Stockholm’s X Royal contemporary art museum. The institution is on the brink of announcing their new exhibition, The Square, a 4×4 glowing shape in the center of the museum’s front courtyard, with a plaque announcing it as a sacred place that demands equality and the responsibility of helping whoever’s inside. The installation is a social experiment based on relational aesthetics – the idea, as Christian puts it, that people will act differently in different spaces.

Our protagonist is evidently a believer in the power of the square, but he’s also an active participator in a culture of technological self-reliance that spurns his fellow citizens, as the movie goes to great lengths to show us.

Just before the installation stands to be announced via ad campaign, Christian gets his wallet and phone pickpocketed when he tries to help a crying woman and spends much of the following hours tracking his phone to get it back.

Ostlund said in a talkback following the film that this situation of Christian’s was inspired by the story of a friend of his, a producer for Force Majeure. Like his friend, Ostlund’s character tracks the phone (although he has a second one) to a dingy apartment building (in his Tesla), and writes a threatening letter demanding its return, which he drops in the mailbox of every resident.

The stunt works, but the next day, Christian gets a threatening letter of his own, from a young boy who lives in the building whose parents now think him a thief. Punished, the young boy finds Christian and demands he apologize for dishonoring the family, and exonerate the child for a crime he didn’t commit.

This petty ridiculousness being the through-line of the film, Christian soon finds his life deteriorating into absurdity, one which he is not grounded or noble enough to combat. All the while, the Square glows in Stockholm.

Surrounding this story are a number of scenes, in and around the museum, which subtly prod or savagely provoke our sense of humanity. What is it about us that’s civilized?

A contemporary art museum, housed in a former royal palace, would seem to be the epicenter of sophistication, and instead, we find characters failing their fellow man left and right, or simply throwing their hands up in defeat.

A painfully funny scene has an artist’s talk between two overeducated panelists interrupted when an audience member with Tourette’s starts shouting horrendous profanity. Any annoyance by the speakers, who are unable to get a word in edgeways, is immediately chastised by the crowd on the grounds of political correctness – the audience member has a degenerative disease, and cannot help his constant and creative insults. A stalemate on the grounds of decency is reached.

The most electrifying portion of The Square is when the human comedy gets dark.

At a black-tie event thrown by the museum, a performance artist (played by Terry Notary) enters the ballroom acting like a chimpanzee. A voice on the loudspeaker announces him as a “predator in the jungle” and gala guests are cautioned to sit still and blend in so the beast doesn’t notice them. Shot in real time over very long takes, Notary walks through the crowd, playing with hair and making monkey noises to the delight of his audience – until he refuses to leave. In one of the best performances I’ve seen in years, Notary takes his animalistic nature to another level and begins chasing away artists, screaming and harassing patrons, and savagely pulling a woman to the ground by her hair, until the tuxedoed donors pull him off her and begin beating him to death.

At a black-tie event thrown by the museum, a performance artist (played by Terry Notary) enters the ballroom acting like a chimpanzee. A voice on the loudspeaker announces him as a “predator in the jungle” and gala guests are cautioned to sit still and blend in so the beast doesn’t notice them. Shot in real time over very long takes, Notary walks through the crowd, playing with hair and making monkey noises to the delight of his audience – until he refuses to leave. In one of the best performances I’ve seen in years, Notary takes his animalistic nature to another level and begins chasing away artists, screaming and harassing patrons, and savagely pulling a woman to the ground by her hair, until the tuxedoed donors pull him off her and begin beating him to death.

In my short history of seeing films at their inception to the public sphere, never before have I seen a part of a movie that was so instantly iconic, so deserving of conversation and remembrance of both performance and purpose in a way that only a handful of artists ever achieve.

Notary’s performance was like Samuel L. Jackson reciting Ezekiel 25:17 – your heart beat faster even as your blood ran cold. Equally remarkable was the way this scene, the structural centerpiece of The Square but in many ways, a standalone, fit perfectly into such a delicate epoch of a film. We transitioned into and out of it like a symphony movement.

Ruben Ostlund revealed the meaning of the “ape scene” in The Square

In the talkback, Ruben Ostlund was asked almost immediately about the “ape scene” and said, among other things, that he was trying to directly provoke. Knowing his chances of entering the competition this year at Cannes, the director sought out a moment where a group of guests in black tie – just like those at the Lumiere theater on opening night – devolve into senseless madness.

He found Notary by Googling “actor’s monkey impressions:” Notary has done much of the pre-CGI movements of different monkeys in the new Planet of the Apes franchise, and had his impression down pat.

I don’t want to reveal the ending for those who haven’t watched it, but Östlund employed a similar choice as in Force Majeure of finishing his film in an open, uneventful fashion. Though not too long, there was a sense of trailing off, the first in a narrative that is otherwise so tightly wound. My greatest concern was the lack of concrete evidence that Christian had learned anything from his increasingly chaotic life – not that he had to, but it makes a difference on what the audience takes away. Though I think a director should never have to explain themselves to make their piece work, I got a lot out of hearing Östlund respond to questions about his ending, which I feel I should pass on to you.

“I love talking about the ending,” revealed Ruben Ostlund. He then began to describe an old Swedish poem he knows in which the narrator, in middle age, recounts a childhood experience of playing marbles. “He has fifty marbles and his friend has five, so naturally he wins, which is very easy to do with fifty if you know how this game is played. So he wins, takes his fifty-five marbles home, and then realizes the shameful thing he’s done to his friend, take all his marbles, so he goes back to find the boy, but by now it’s dark out. The child is gone. And he never got the chance to make things right,” recalled Ruben Ostlund.

Ruben Ostlund :“I wanted to make an ending that captures this feeling because so often we want to do the right thing, and then it’s too late,”

That feeling is certainly not unknown to so many of us, whether you live in Stockholm, Cannes, or New York City. There’s a guilt that comes with the privilege of living in these wonderful and highly mechanized places, and of seeing in your peripheral vision – as Christian so often does in The Square – the beggars and poor who don’t share your wealth, the luxury of your vapid concerns, whether they be curating contemporary art, making a film, or watching one.

Says Ruben Ostlund of his main characters, which are archetypally weak men, “I’m interested in what it means to be a man these days, we are all born into a kind of collective guilt, you know? You have to think seriously now about what you do that contributes to patriarchy.” So it goes with any member of a privileged party who doesn’t want to be accidentally oppressive to those they who don’t share their place.

This, more than anything, is what makes The Square an iconic and lasting force of a film, so much of it is preoccupied with the uneasy humor of knowing you aren’t making a difference, or trying your best and having it not be enough.

Ultimately, we learn that our society today, despite its sophistication and intensely mechanized modernization, doesn’t make us better people. We now have to invent places for ourselves to find empathy, construct a space where we can go and ask hopefully for help.

 

 

Library

Subscribe to the Newsletter