Ruben Östlund’s phenomenal The Square—winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival—is many things at once. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour Oscar contender that’s in Swedish, but also stars English-speaking Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Dominic West (The Affair). It’s a social critique about our inability to put into practice the sincere ideals we preach. It’s a satiric takedown of modern art pretentiousness and media sensationalism. It’s an anxious nerve-jangler, as the director creates suspense from drawn-out situations involving people acting with reckless imprudence. And it’s an uneasy-laughter comedy of intense awkwardness and even more intense confrontation, replete with one of the standout scenes of the year.
In other words, it defies easy categorization. Which is just the way its maker intended.
“I don’t like genre movies,” the dapper 43-year-old Östlund remarks shortly after The Square’s premiere at this year’s New York Film Festival (it arrives in U.S. theaters on Oct. 27). “I don’t like art-house genre. I don’t like entertainment genres. I want to be free from that.”
On the one hand, that’s a disappointing thing to hear from Östlund, given that the mounting agitation and (literal and emotional) danger found in his last three gems—2011’s intriguing Play, 2014’s prickly Force Majeure, and now The Square—prove that he has the skills to craft a superior edge-of-your-seat thriller. Nonetheless, as his work ably makes clear, the filmmaker is most in his element when he’s free to explore human behavior in a variety of different modes and from a wide range of perspectives.
“I approach it quite like a stand-up comedian: You are describing a dilemma to the audience, and how would you relate to this dilemma? And we can laugh about ourselves?” he explains. “But the difference between me and stand-up comedians is that I’m adding suspense to it, and I also like to do it awkward, but on a different level—it’s not only about the situations; you can also make it awkward because of the rhythm and how we’re dealing with how people are looking. So I have another element to play with than stand-up comedians have.”
“My greatest experience when I’ve been to cinema has been a feeling that I, as an audience member, have to relate to the content. Am I allowed to laugh? Should I feel terrified? That’s like the world itself. The most tragic events have comical elements in it. For me, I’m trying to be true to how I look at the world.”
Marrying a piercing sociological eye to expansive storytelling imagination, Östlund is at his best when not boxed in by external controls. Which is somewhat ironic, given that constraints are at the heart of The Square, which concerns well-to-do museum director Christian’s (Claes Bang) efforts to launch a new installation known as “The Square.” Per its name, it’s an empty four-sided area on the ground, and its intent is to be a safe space that people can enter to find trust, aid, compassion, and understanding. Those elements are in short supply in the art world depicted here, as becomes obvious from Christian’s subsequent, sprawling story, which involves a stolen wallet that he tries to retrieve by threatening a lower-income apartment building’s tenants, a fraught sexual relationship with a reporter (Moss) that culminates with a fight over a used condom, and a marketing campaign for the project that goes horribly awry—courtesy of a PR video involving an exploding homeless girl. Cringe, gape, shudder, laugh, repeat.
Through these narrative incidents, The Square suggests that social contracts—to lend a helping hand; to be kind even when it’s difficult; to have faith in others’ motives—aren’t quite what they used to be. “It’s [‘The Square’] definitely trying to create a social contract that we have to be reminded of, because we are aware of it, but we’ve always struggled with ideas of equality, of being fair, of treating each other well,” says Östlund. “How do we create a society that is equal for everybody? ‘The Square’ is a symbolic place—a humanistic traffic sign that’s a way to approach these ancient questions in a new way.”
While “The Square” might sound like a far-fetched dramatic conceit, it exists in the real world courtesy of Östlund, who created it at Sweden’s Vandalorum museum in 2014 in collaboration with producer Kalle Boman. Moreover, the director believes its message isn’t greatly removed from many of the other practical and ethical arrangements that comprise daily life. “It’s possible. We can actually create an agreement that is strong enough about this, because we have done it before. We’ve done it in the free space and sanctuary of the church. In the library, and at a pedestrian crossing, we have very strong agreements about how we should behave toward each other. So of course we can create a new agreement, and the punishment is shame,” he laughs. “It’s not the laws that are punishing us—it’s shame. And I think shame is something that is very strong when it comes to human beings.”
At the center of The Square’s amusing maelstrom is Bang’s Christian, a confident art-world elite who wears snappy clothes and drives a Tesla. Christian appears to genuinely believe in the guiding themes of his museum’s many art pieces (even if he can’t quite explain them), but a series of episodes—all of them unexpected, and demanding sudden reactions—lead him to act in ways that contradict his principles. The emerging portrait is one of a hot-air fraud, although Östlund doesn’t view Christian as a hypocrite, exactly. “When we end up in the wrong situation, all of us have the possibility to act in quite stupid ways,” he says. “In my way of thinking about [Christian], and in my way of thinking about these thematic things, I think it’s a constant struggle for human beings to live up to the idea of who we want to be.”
That desire to test characters’ sincerity, resolve and instincts is most apparent in arguably the most eye-opening scene of 2017, in which a group of black-tie attendees at a gala dinner are, out of the blue, joined by a shirtless man impersonating an ape (played by Terry Notary, best known for having portrayed some of the primates in the new Planet of the Apes reboot franchise). Entering the regal ballroom with his monkey-arm-extensions, Notary’s performance artist at first seems like the sort of idiosyncratic entertainment appropriate for this experimental milieu (an installation of his work is even spied earlier in the film). However, his stunt soon goes from cute to alarming to downright terrifying as he rampages through the room, leaping on tables, smashing dinnerware, and physically accosting one female guest—all as, for an extended stretch, no one intervenes.
It’s a bracing sequence, both absurd and disturbing, and the inspiration, Östlund claims, was none other than legendarily extreme punk-rock provocateur GG Allin—specifically, GG Allin in Boston Part 1 and Part 2. “That is one of the most intense experiences I have had of moving images, actually,” he confesses. “And I liked the idea of making an audience dressed in tuxedos, following a strict etiquette idea of how you should behave, suddenly meeting an anarchist like GG Allin. How would they deal with that?” Furthermore, given that he wanted the film to premiere at Cannes (where many dress to the nines for big events), it also felt like a way to directly involve his viewers by making them “think they’re lab rats,” he laughs. Once he saw YouTube clips of Notary’s ape impressions, the centerpiece stunner was fully born.
Notary isn’t the only primate in The Square, however. Moss’ character, it turns out, also lives with a monkey. In a film that repeatedly, hilariously charts man’s impulse to behave in ways that run counter to his own convictions or interests, these knuckle-dragging figures come across as Östlund’s way of making a sly satiric point: For all our pompous airs and civilized constructs, we’re so self-absorbed, and so disconnected from each other and ourselves, that we’re slowly charting a devolutionary course back to our more primitive roots. Next stop: the primordial ooze.
The Square often feels like a study of humanity’s reversion to animalism, but Östlund himself sees his latest as less a condemnation than a cheeky reminder about where we come from, and what makes us tick. “The reason we get paralyzed and don’t take responsibility when we should sometimes is also because we are herd animals. We get paralyzed, and go hiding in the herd so someone else can be the prey,” he states. “I was more thinking that we should not forget that we’re animals. A lot of our behavior, we have to look at ourselves as animals. Otherwise, it’s impossible to explain why we’re doing what we’re doing.”