Palme d’Or Winner Ruben Östlund – Undressing the Carefully Curated Art World

by Tina Jøhnk Christensen May 31, 2017
Directro Ruben Ostlund, winner of the 2-17 Cannes Film Festival

getty images

This year’s Palme d’Or winner The Square is a satirical look at the contemporary art world. The curator of a modern art museum in Stockholm, Christian (played by Danish actor Claes Bang), is desperately looking to create success for the art gallery and himself. He is the epitome of a stylish and cultured European professional and his next event at the art museum is ‘The Square’ – an installation where people are told to behave responsibly and generously. Confronted with a real life situation when his cell phone is stolen, however, his actions can hardly be described as responsible and they have serious consequences for him. His life and civilized facade start to unravel.  The film explores the boundaries of political correctness, creative liberty and free speech and deals with the loss of identity of the modern male. We spoke to the 43-year old Swedish director, Ruben Östlund, who is best know for his 2014 Golden Globe nominee Force Majeure.

It is quite easy to spoof and mock the modern art scene. Why did you decide to focus on the art scene?

I am interested in undressing the ritual of the contemporary art scene and like we could always do with the movie scene, we could attack it and criticize it in many ways. I was interested in this someone, who is playing a role as an artist but when you scratch underneath that role there is nothing.  And then when I was doing research for the film and I was going around the world going to all these different art museums and what you find many times is mirrors in the room and it doesn’t provoke you and it doesn’t raise any questions.  And of course these rituals have to be questioned as any area should be questioned and any ritual should be questioned, to see that we are not getting too comfortable in the role, but what are we really dealing with?  But for me, there are also some really fantastic art performances in the film, so it’s not only about that.

 

Can you talk about the writing process?  Does it start with specific scenes or images or concepts? 

The scene between Claes and Elisabeth (Moss) with the opening dialogue, we were discussing how to solve this. When you put up a situation like that, something starts and suddenly the actors are saying a million things that I couldn’t make up myself when I was writing it. Then you take that part and put it into the script. A lot of the time Elisabeth and Claes came up with the best lines for the dialogue.  So I have a situation and then you are trying to explore that given situation.  And that is a big part of the writing for me. 

 

Your way of revealing the inequality of everyday life is represented as hilarious and horrifying.  So where did you find all the ideas for the scenes?

I think I look for situations. Like a certain situation that occurs with this guy with Tourette’s syndrome -suddenly when we are supposed to behave in a different way, I always get interested. Because we have to question how would we be in that situation?  And many of them are self-experienced.  And as soon as there is something that is like hurting a little bit, then I get interested. 

 

Can you tell us about the scenes of self-exploration?Yes.  Well, of course the scenes with the daughters. I have two daughters myself. The scenes with women, the scenes of someone being on a sort of uplifted position and things like that.

 

You are kind of holding a mirror up to the audience.  There were a lot of uncomfortable things in this film and the previous films that you have done.  Do you ever think about how far you can go? 

Of course.  Sometimes you have set ups and you can go so absurd in those scenes.  But of course, there’s a realistic fundamental thing that you have to do all the time that you have to stay true to.  But for example, as you said about the mirror, I love that he is going in a tuxedo down looking at the trash. And we are going to screen that film at Lumiere tonight and the audience who are all dressed up in a tuxedo will hopefully be looking at themselves. 

 

Why did you choose the Danish actor Claes Bang for the role as the museum director?The core of the film for me is this art piece, The Square. It’s about how we should behave towards each other. Before I met Claes for the first casting, he had a little speech that he wrote about The Square. Much of it ended up in the film. It was done in an honest way and I was very impacted by his speech.  But he acts very true to anything that comes out of that scene, that moment, and dares to be honest with his reaction, and still being very precise when it comes to pauses. 

 

You also cast Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West. What is it like working with the actors and doing many takes?

I would say the pleasant feeling of when you reach the absolute top level on the last takes, then you walk away from the set and you are like wow, that was great. On some days, you do it on ten takes earlier.  And then you leave the set that you didn’t manage, but still, we can reach a really high level before.  So that is really affecting your mood when you are leaving the set that day. 

 

Which takes do you use for the final cut?

Very often it is the last takes.  Surprisingly often I would say.  One of the last takes.  But of course it was a little bit of a problem because I think the actors were on a very high level to begin with, so I had so much material to look through and consider.  So the editing was quite hard because of that. You had to pick out the raisins so to speak and to pick out the best part.