Art, as we all know, has a great way of unpacking these types of socio-cultural issues and that’s an inherent reason why Ruben Östlund’s masterpiece The Square has managed to resonate so deeply with so many people right now.
It carries with it a subtle message about the mortality of testosterone. This idea that mankind is facing a moral dilemma on an epic scale. How can man deal with problems without resorting to brute force? A problem plaguing the gender since time immemorial.
In a broader sense, Ruben Östlund describes his body of work as part sociology and stand-up comedy, but previous films like Force Majeure and Involuntary go a lot deeper than just that. They force you to ask questions about one’s purpose in a world filled with total chaos.
In The Square, the scene that brings this all together is the one where Terry Notary, famed Planet of the Apes motion actor, brilliantly mimics the unbridled chaos of the primate world in a 5-minute choreographed frenzy. He does it with such authenticity that when the film was released it sent film audiences and critics into a type of ecstasy.
We wanted to know more about the man behind the monkey. In this refreshing chat, Ruben Östlund opened up to us about why filmmaking is really just about creating chaos, what the primate scene really symbolises and Sweden’s hideous involvement in World War II.
‘The square is a zone of trust and care, we share equal rights and responsibilities.’
I think all the movies you make have a hidden agenda, they are about the downfall of man. The mutation or emasculation of mankind. Would you agree with that?
What I think is, for example in Force Majeure, we have the setup of the man who is breaking the contract that he’s supposed to sacrifice himself for his family. Then there’s a catastrophe and he has to come back and face his actions. I relate a lot to that as a man and the fear of doing that, and I think that film is universal.
We have talked about groups of women, immigrants, kids, but we never really aim the spotlight towards the man. And now we are suddenly in a time when the spotlight is back towards the man. We’re talking about the man as a concept, we’re talking about the man and structure of things and how we behave as men.
But here is the interesting thing. The man’s original role was the protector, the isolator, the defender of the unit, but that is not needed of men anymore. And when I watch your movies, it really feels like your saying we don’t need you anymore. The idea we can isolate men and it’s terrifying the shit out of them.
I love what you’re saying and I think you’re right. I never thought about it myself.
So there are a lot of moral dilemmas in your films. Even the central character in The Square has a moral predicament: can I have it all? Can I also be saved morally? Where do I fit in?
I’m always interested in the clash of cultural expectations and how basic our instinct is. So, for example, the survival instinct. I learnt about a study that was about ferry catastrophes. They investigated everything from Titanic to MS Estonia and looked at the statistics of survivors. The ones that survive are men and the ones who die are women and children. Even if you have the rule of women and children first in the lifeboats, when the survival instinct kicks in cultural expectations are pushed out. What I think is interesting is we have to deal with our own actions afterwards because we have done something that culturally is wrong. Can we take the blame for it? It’s so funny when you talk to couples and they say, “my husband would not do the same thing.” Statistically yes he would.
"We’re talking about the man as a concept, we’re talking about the man and structure of things and how we behave as men."
I want to talk about this idea of chaos. I think chaos is something that you love but I’m not sure that you are aware of it in the sense that it’s oblique. There’s no such thing as order, really? We are always in a state of chaos, and it’s our fear of everything collapsing that drives us?
Yeah at any moment it can tip over.
Everywhere! All the time.
But I don’t see myself as on the edge of chaos all the time. I think much more that I need to provoke situations in order to make my life feel that I’m struggling with something. The process of making a feature film is creating chaos.
Science says we’re the most illogical irrational creatures ever even though we think we make sense and we live in predictable patterns. If you look at the work of Daniel Kahneman or Amos Tversky they back this up. That’s especially clear in the primate scene where he turns everything upside down.
Yes, I agree with that and I think one of the starting points of that scene was firstly I saw an American punk rock artist GG Allin.
I love GG Allin. I mean I don’t love him, I think he’s crazy.
Yeah but he’s interesting too. There are some YouTube clips of him –
Yeah, throwing his shit at the audience.
Yeah exactly. But the idea with the monkey performance was I wanted a tuxedo dressed audience in Cannes watching another tuxedo dressed audience trying to deal with that performance artist. I wanted these very civilised people to turn into very uncivilised animals. So it definitely was meant to break down completely their self-image in that room.
"Awkwardness is one of the most googled words on the internet."
So to kind of break with this idea that we are neatly dressed…
Sure. The starting point of that is very much also the voiceover at the beginning: “soon we will be confronted by wild animals.” That is highlighting the bystander effect. We will get paralysed if we get scared and it’s not because we are bad, it’s because we are herd animals.
I saw this press conference you did at Cannes, you know the official press conference with the whole cast. I think it was very awkward.
Maybe I’m the only one who found it awkward. I felt that the cast were very hard on you.
I don’t remember. Maybe I’m used to it.
They all said to you, and I wasn’t sure how serious they were, that you’re so demanding. I can imagine that you’re a huge lover of truth. You demand authenticity from the person, but you also demand the truth from the situation.
Yes and I also want us to be able to see the truth.
But who’s truth?
Mine of course. That’s the only thing I can use as an instrument when it comes to it. If you’re filming a relationship between two actors, and it’s the relationship of a couple for example, that we have seen a thousand times before. If I don’t see a perspective on it that makes me see it again and have a new experience then I will never see that it’s true.
So you want that feeling over and over? The repeat of that?
In many ways yeah. But anyway when it comes to the actors I think that they are proud of their work afterwards so they can live with me being demanding while we are shooting.
What are your weaknesses?
When it comes to social situations I think I’m very sensitive.
What do you mean by that?
I mean that every time a pause is a little bit too long I can sense it. Dealing with social awkwardness is something that I think most of us are a little scared of and it’s less problematic for me now but this has always had a very strong impact on me when it happens.
Is that why you focus on it in your movies?
Yes, I think it’s a way of dealing with it.
So it’s like a form of therapy almost?
I don’t know if you’ve seen Involuntary. There is a scene in the film that is based on a childhood memory where I’m with my mother and a couple of neighbours, and they are sitting there around the table chatting, and suddenly I hear my mother say to one of the others, “please can you look at me too when you’re talking? You’re only looking at Annette all the time. It makes me feel excluded.” What she did was create the most intense silence that I’ve ever felt and I still remember it. She was doing something that was completely forbidden, highlighting her vulnerability. Instead of taking the tension and doing something like demanding people allow you to get in –
So your work really is a mixture of sociology and stand-up comedy? That’s how you’ve described your work.
Yeah but I also think it’s interesting to look at social awkwardness. Awkwardness is one of the most googled words on the internet. If you look at the brain activity when you are ashamed, it’s one of the strongest brain activities that there is. As human beings shame can be so strong on us, stronger than the survival instinct.
If you ask anyone in the world what is a Swede they’ll generally use words like – affluent, clean, entitled, happy. But I feel like there some Scandinavian guilt in your movies? Are you saying, I’m so sorry that we have all these things?
Definitely. When they opened up the borders of Schengen and Romanian beggars came to Sweden it was like 2005 or something like that, and it hit our guilt spot-on. If we track that guilt back in time I think the one thing we have been dealing with that we still feel guilty about is that Sweden stayed neutral during the Second World War.
You weren’t really neutral though?
No. Sweden invented the idea that Jewish people should wear the Star of David on their chest. That’s a Swedish idea.
I didn’t know that. You were the main traders of ore, I know that. You supplied the Germans with industrial metal and –
Yeah and also this eugenics study said that the Swedes were at the top of this hierarchy. So there was something very mixed about it. We were proud. We are always looking down on other countries, but we do it from a position where we feel guilt. During the Second World War, there was an ad campaign, and I always thought it was about how we should not tell any military secrets to the enemy, but it was actually about how we shouldn’t say anything political. It was like, let’s just let this war play out.
"Sweden invented the idea that Jewish people should wear the Star of David on their chest."
On Sweden's involvement in World War II
The Square plays on some of those themes, what was it again?
“The square is a zone of trust and care, we share equal rights and responsibilities.”
Yes, maybe elaborate on that?
Well, I think that when it comes to The Square for example if you look at the traffic rules – if you look at the pedestrian crossing we have managed to create a social contract that the car driver will be careful with the pedestrians. It’s kind of extraordinary that a couple of lines on the street can create a common agreement. If you change from left-hand traffic to right-hand traffic in one night like we did in Sweden in 1967 I think it was, there’s a possibility of creating a behaviour with a social contract. The idea of The Square was to remind people that a different kind of behaviour is possible. If we want this to work then, of course, it takes a lot of work to make people aware of this concept, but it would be like a traffic sign to humanistic values. Human beings are imitating creatures. We are imitating the culture that we’re living in.
The Square is out tomorrow in selected cinemas in the UK.
Feature image: Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.