Ruben Östlund on The Square, media & The Emoji Movie

The Square, Ruben Östlund's follow-up to Force Majeure, won the top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival. We speak to the Swedish filmmaker about the Palme d'Or, human behaviour, viral media and... The Emoji Movie

Feature by Josh Slater-Williams | 12 Mar 2018

“It feels great. I would love to have another one!” Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund is cheerfully telling The Skinny his answer to the one question he’s probably been asked by everyone about his award-winning new movie, The Square: how does it feel having a Palme d’Or?

“I’m super happy about their decision,” he continues, “because I think it’s highlighting a new kind of European cinema that I feel I’m connected to – Maren Ade with Toni Erdmann, Yorgos Lanthimos who made Dogtooth... I think there’s a certain kind of European movement now that is a very interesting cinema, but not being in this old way of looking at cinema as an art form: more conceptual, more raising questions about contemporary times, but doing it in an entertaining way. And I’m really happy that they highlighted it, that they gave us a prize, because I think I’m part of that movement.”

The Square is Östlund’s follow-up to Force Majeure, which was likewise a satirical dramedy that skewered human behaviour in the fallout of uncomfortable situations. In the case of that earlier film, it was fallibility and fragile masculinity in the aftermath of one selfish choice during a crisis situation, which turns out to be a false alarm.

On the appeal of the “behaviour experiment” movies he tends to make, Östlund says that “the knowledge about human behaviour and how we behave is really one of the most interesting topics there is. That you are putting a human in a context; you don’t look at him, a human being, as an individual. You look at it as a species. You don’t put the blame on the individual. You are looking at decisions and going, ah, how interesting. Instead of saying, ‘How could you do that, you bastard?’”

Led by Danish actor Claes Bang and featuring Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, The Square follows Christian (Bang), the respected curator of a contemporary art museum. The Square, his newest exhibition, is an installation inviting visitors to be altruistic and remember their role as responsible human beings. The mantra of the exhibition is that “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring, within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

On the topic of the exhibition within the film, Östlund says he thinks of it less as an art piece and instead akin to a more commonplace feature of everyday public life: “In order to question ourselves, we created this symbolic place that should almost be like a pedestrian crossing – with a couple of lines on the ground, we could build an agreement that here we should take care of each other. Here we should be paying attention to each other. Here we should put trust in each other. And I really like to compare it with a pedestrian crossing rather than an art piece because a pedestrian crossing is a couple of lines in the street, but there is a super strong agreement that here the cars should be careful with the pedestrians. It says something about the ability we have to organise ourselves in a society, and of course, we can create new agreements and new symbols that change our behaviour.”

Despite the show’s thesis and outward commitment to good causes in his public persona, Christian has difficulty living up to those same ideals in his personal life. After the theft of his phone, his misguided response to the crime sees him get dragged into a series of curious and shameful situations. Some are his own fault, while others are in part down to an array of oddball characters, like a journalist (Moss) who lives with a chimpanzee for no clear reason and a pair of PR agency pillocks who create a disastrous viral campaign for The Square that causes a public outcry.

“I would say that most of the scenes are based on my own experiences or scenes and situations that friends have told me,” the director says. “That’s the conflict. You look at yourself as a moralistic person, an ethical, correct person that wants to do good, and maybe also have a certain kind of knowledge. And then in a certain situation, you’re just like, ‘I’m going to have revenge. I’m going to have that cell phone back.’ I wanted to look at situations where I thought I could actually do this as well. I would also have the ability to do those quite stupid things.”

Östlund also believes the film’s thematic and satirical concerns could work in the setting of a different art world, potentially even in the context of filmmaking: “I think you can look at almost any kind of profession where the focus on money is just making you maintain a ritual and do things in a conventional way. And I think that’s really what the artwork is about and also what the movie industry is about. This Emoji Movie that is coming out now and things like that. It’s really about selling a concept that people know and that’s why it gets clicked on, then you have the ability to go there, making that, because [people] know the concept. These kind of movies are just pushing out other more interesting things.”

We suggest that The Emoji Movie could be a plausible project from the aforementioned numpty PR characters, and of the film’s many satirical targets, those that come about from this subplot provide some of both the film’s funniest moments and its biggest food for thought. At one point, the two ad men tell Christian and his board that “your competitor is not other museums. Your competitor is terrorism, far right-wing politics, and natural disasters.”

On the issue of viral media, and the cited competitors in that dialogue quote he paraphrased for us, Östlund is particularly passionate: “If you want attention in the media, terrorism is a great thing. If you want to promote your political standpoint, terrorism works really, really well in our time. And I thought of the way that news media is going for that attention to get people to look at their ads. It’s creating a kind of scary thing, really. I mean, they are reproducing the images that are made for promotion, that are made to promote a certain terror group. They are the PR channel for that terror group. The media is like, 'OK look, ISIS has done it.' I think that [when] you have to be more sensational when you’re getting attention, that’s really a problem with the media landscape today.”

Östlund gives an example of this phenomenon that should be recognisable to anyone who's turned on the television, read a newspaper or logged on to Twitter in the past few years: “I heard a politician in Sweden say this: he was a member of the Pirate Party and from one election to the other, they suddenly didn’t get any votes anymore. They didn’t get any attention or any votes. And the party leader was like, ‘All we are left to even try to say is that we are for pro-legalisation of marijuana, but no one writes about us anyway.’ So if you’re a politician today, if you’re going to be elected, then you need attention, and in order to get attention, you need to go for a conflict or some sensation. And then after that, then you should start to run your politics. But it’s a very complex situation. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good politician. If you’re a good PR spectacle, if you’re smart when it comes to PR, that’s when you’re going to get elected. And that is scary.”

The Square is released 16 Mar by Curzon Artificial Eye