Magnolia Pictures

Interview: Ruben Östlund on The Square and the Social Contract

Interview: Ruben Östlund on The Square and the Social Contract


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Whether you live in urban or suburban sprawls, you likely stroll through crosswalks and traffic intersections every single day of your life without thinking twice about the greater meaning of what pedestrian foot paths signify. To most of us, they’re just spaces for separating bodies from cars, a zebra-lined stretch of pavement guiding us from one side of the street to the other. To the protagonist in Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s new film, The Square, they represent a contract between drivers and walkers, in which the former agrees not to run over the latter. It’s a reasonable agreement.

That image marries the film’s interior and exterior intentions in one efficient thematic package: We’re all concerned with the world we inhabit on the surface, but once you get past that surface, we’re all ruled primarily by more self-oriented motivations. You might assume that The Square, a satire from one of cinema’s wryest satirists, means to mock the contradiction of ideals against action, but you’d only be half right. Östlund has no qualms about skewering his characters’ more blatant hypocrisies, but as I discovered after talking with him about the film, he also feels pity, even sympathy, for them at the same time. Fixing all of the world’s problems is a big burden for one person to take on alone, and maybe the idea that The Square attacks best is the idea that it’s up to the individual to right society’s endless wrongs.

The entire idea for this film was spun out of an art installation you did a few years back, if I’m not mistaken?

Yeah, exactly. It was me and a friend of mine. We were invited to a museum for design in Värnamo, in Sweden. We had this idea that, actually from the beginning, well, maybe it wasn’t an art installation. It was more of a humanistic traffic sign, you know, like a symbolic place that should remind us about our role as fellow human beings, to remind us of social contracts where we can trust each other and take responsibility.

How did you crack that idea? It’s a great observation about such a mundane, everyday thing that most of us would normally not unpack in that way.

The idea came up when I was working on my feature film Play, which is about really young boys robbing other young boys in the center of Gothenburg, where I live, and it was inspired by true events. These robberies were going on for three years or something, and I read through the court files, and you could tell, even though the robberies took place in a mall with a lot of adults around, it was very, very seldom that any adults stopped the robberies. It also didn’t happen that the kids asked for help. It was like the kids’ world and the adults’ world were taking place on two parallel levels.

I talked to my father, who was brought up in Stockholm in the ’50s, about this, and he told me that when he was young his parents put an address tag around his neck, with the address of where they lived, and then they sent him out to the center of the city to play. It was so obvious that in the ’50s we were looking at other adults as someone who would help our children if they ended up in trouble, but today we tend to look at other adults as someone who would trouble our children. That’s a change in attitude. Society hasn’t become dangerous. Society is just as safe, and sometimes even more safe. So it was a way of trying to embrace that attitude change, and also to create a new social contract for how we should behave toward each other.

It’s fascinating that that idea has stuck with you since Play. It’s played out in a lot of your other films. The one that immediately jumps to mind for me is Force Majeure, which carries that idea out as well. Is that a focal point that you’ll see yourself returning to throughout your career?

Yes, and I’ve tried to describe what it is that makes me interested in that. Always, when there’s a conflict between who we are expected to be and who we want to be, suddenly we’re facing a dilemma that makes us behave in a different way. I think that’s really the core of a human being, that we’re dealing with our instincts and our needs, and at the same time we look at ourselves as rational and cultivated, that we’re civilized. There’s a clash between those things. That’s what a human being is. We are animals! At the same time, we strive for equality. We strive for being fair. It’s pointing out something about us, always, when you find that breaking point.

Do you feel we’re more prone to that kind of social inaction today than we’ve ever been? Maybe we’re safer today, but I feel like sometimes we’re more disconnected from each other, and less inclined to help.

Yeah. I definitely think that we’ve become more individualistic, and that we’ve lost our trust in the common project, in dealing with things together. It’s more and more that we get down to every single person is their own company, you know, their own economical brand. If you look at, for example, the issue with beggars in Sweden, it’s a new phenomenon for us in many ways. It’s interesting that we put so much guilt on the individual, if the individual helps or not, but at the same time, seriously, an individual will never solve that problem. But if we discuss that problem on a societal level, and we say, “Let’s raise taxes for the richest people,” then we can deal with this problem together. Then we would have the possibility of solving that problem. But today we’ve brought down so many big community and society problems to an individual level, and that puts a lot of guilt and pressure on the individual. But we don’t have the ability to organize ourselves anymore, really.

My mother was a teacher in school in Sweden. She’s retired now. But she told me, in the moment when teachers got individual salaries, they lost their possibility to organize themselves in the union and fight for a certain kind of level when it comes to the circumstances they were working under. So, suddenly they had huge classes, they had fewer holidays, and things like that. It really affected the quality of the schooling in Sweden. I think that that thing with individual salaries made people more concerned about their own position, and their own thing in relationship to the principal, the one who was paying the salary. So, I really think it’s pointing out how it’s lifting us up and making us less good in organizing ourselves.

That’s enlightening to hear. I was going to ask you how you think we get past that inaction as individuals, to piggyback on that. When we have all of these individual pressures weighing us down, how do we incentivize ourselves to step out of our own selves, our own lives, to reach out to others?

One thing is knowledge and education, that we believe so much in individual freedom, you know, that you should be able to do whatever you want with your money, and you should be able to do whatever you want with your life. We believe in these ideas about consumer power, and things like that. But seriously, there are some problems that we’ll never be able to solve on an individual level. I mean, if I’m recycling my plastic bags or not, I think that we need regulations on a societal level. Some problems we really have to deal with on a societal level, and we need laws and regulations to deal with them.

For me, it’s really about economical education. In many ways, I think that Marx was quite right when it comes to how we analyze how our behavior changes from the position we have in society and in the economy. I think that this idea is very important. We think that we are free from the structure that we are living in, but actually we are completely imprisoned by the position we have in society. We need to understand that we’re ants in an ant farm.

To hear you speak about this, I’m starting to change my read on Christian a little bit. I felt like the film was unflattering toward him, and now, I feel a little pity for him at the same time.

[laughs] I think that I see Christian quite as much as I look at myself. I have to be able to relate to his behavior. Otherwise I would only ridicule him, and I don’t want to do that. I want to also understand why he’s doing as he’s doing.

So you have sympathy for him as you have sympathy, again, going back to Force Majeure, for Tomas? I think that’s essential to the study of manliness that you’ve done over these last two films.

That’s interesting, and if you look at the nature theme, with buffalos and lions, even if the lions are eating up the buffalo kids, you still have sympathy for the lions. That kind of perspective, where you try to put things in context, makes it more easy to have sympathy even for behavior that’s considered bad.

And that sheds Terry Notary’s big scene in a different light too. I think I would have to watch the film a second, third, fourth time to really get to the sympathetic part of what Oleg does. That’s an extreme scene.

[laughs] Yeah! Definitely. He’s inspired by a Russian performance artist, called Oleg Kulik, and you know, when I was planning that scene, the aim of The Square was that we should premiere in competition in Cannes. I was so fond of the idea that we would have a tuxedo-dressed audience looking at another tuxedo-dressed audience being controlled by Terry Notary’s character, in order to try to mirror ourselves. I think that’s the only thing I’m trying to strive for when it comes to the film, that the audience has to be confronted with the topics and the questions and the dilemma themselves. And I agree, the performance artist is kind of an extreme person. I wish I was as tough as him when I was making the movie, but I’m not!

For me, that scene, apart from dovetailing nicely with the concern the film has about people stepping in to help—because no one really steps in to help until it’s gone way too far—ties back to the critique of the art world, and what happens when art turns on its creators or its curators. Was that an influence on how you wrote that scene as well?

You know, Oleg Kulik, he had a performance in a museum in Sweden called Färgfabriken where he was playing a dog. He had a big sign next to him that said, “Beware of the dog,” and the audience who didn’t respect that, he attacked them. It ended up that the curator’s daughter was bitten on the leg so bad that they had to call the police.

I guess you being a filmmaker, the challenges aren’t the same, and the potential for things going wrong isn’t the same. But do you fear how the audience will respond to your films? Obviously no one’s going to have to react to your films the way people reacted to Oleg’s performance art, but is that something that weighs on you?

Of course I do. I constantly do that. A movie is a show that’s two hours, or something like that. So what I do quite often during the editing process, I have a test audience, and I don’t ask them any questions. You know, “Did you like the film?” or “Did you understand the film?” But what I do is stick together with an audience, and watch the film, and feel the audience reactions. You can tell so much about how a film is working when it comes to audience dynamics, and things like that. But that comes to a difference between looking at the film yourself and showing it to one person, and then showing it to a bigger crowd. I’m trying to think of the audience, and I constantly think of what kinds of topics and situations are twisting and turning my own expectations of the film, like the relationship between the beggar and Christian. How do I twist and turn and make us think about those two, and the spaces between them?

Speaking to The Square specifically, it feels like you’re also considering the people in the studio, the people responsible for helping you produce the film. I’m thinking of the two social media strategists who have the video go viral. Does that speak to your experience too?

Yeah, the PR agency, those two guys. I think I was interested in the idea that when I have tried to talk about The Square, and the concept of The Square, many of the reactions I had were like: “Well, that’s nice!” But no one really gets engaged in it. So I always thought about the PR agency from my own experience. They’re right! How do we promote a humanistic, altruistic project today? They do the complete opposite, doing something that’s cynical and non-humanistic, and they succeed. And I love that, you know, that they succeed. The media goes straight into the trap, and starts to write about this altruistic art piece because of this very cynical video.