Diff 2017: Director Ruben Ostlund discusses Cannes-lauded movie The Square

The film’s masterstroke is that The Square turns the camera not on politicians or corporate fat cats but to the arts world, supposedly the bastion of upstanding morally righteous citizens

Swedish director Ruben Ostlund poses during a photo sesssion on October 9, 2017 in Paris. 
The art-world satire The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund, has won the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes film festival. / AFP PHOTO / Lionel BONAVENTURE
Powered by automated translation

"When there is a clash between our instincts and cultural expectations, I always think something interesting happens that points out exactly what it means to be a human being," says Ruben Ostlund, director of brilliant satire The Square, which won the Palme d'Or for the best film at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

In it, a renowned middle-class museum curator, Christian, is hosting a challenging exhibition called The Square, which is about trust and caring for others. He seems the epitome of liberal beliefs until the morning his mobile phone is stolen on the way to work in Stockholm. The tracking facility on his phone shows that the phone is in a tower block hosting the city's dispossessed, and in his desire to see his phone returned, Christian's animal instincts come to the fore.

Danish actor Claes Bang, who is attending the Dubai International Film Festival screening of The Square, is revelatory in the role of Christian. "These common values of trust and care that he shines a light on, these values are challenged as we are asked to think about what those concepts mean to us in a practical sense," Bang says. Christian decides to write a threatening letter, which he puts through every letterbox in the tower block, demanding the return of his phone.

This idea for the film was inspired by the desire of writer-director Östlund to highlight the hypocrisy of the liberal arts world and also an incident that happened to a producer who worked on his previous film Force Majeure in 2014. Östlund says: "She wrote this letter to get her phone back and went to the part of the city where we shot my first film Play, which is a film about prejudice and pre-judging people, she went there and put a letter in every mailbox, and as she did so she started to think: 'What am I doing?' So I wanted to use that set-up and then I had to think about how I could create problems for Christian."

As part of research for the film, Östlund and filmmaker Kalle Boman created The Square exhibition at Museum Vandalorum in Varnamo in 2015. The exhibit involved drawing a square on the floor and proclaiming that within this boundary we have equal obligations and rights. Anyone can go there when they need help and passers-by are obliged to try to help. The concept questions equality and entitlement.

"With how the world is changing, a lot of people want to live in Sweden and Denmark because they are scared to stay where they live," Bang says.

Ostlund adds: "I think it's interesting in Sweden that until recently we are not used to seeing beggars on the street. However, instead of talking about beggars as a societal problem, we talk about it on an individual level that if you give to the beggars it shows that you are either a good or bad person. Yet we can never solve the problem on an individual level, but we could solve it if we said the richest had to pay 0.01 per cent more in tax – yet we are not even having this discussion."


Read more from Diff:


The film's masterstroke is that The Square turns the camera not on politicians or corporate fat cats but to the arts world, supposedly the bastion of upstanding morally righteous citizens. "The one thing that really provokes me is that they are always protecting themselves and saying that everyone who criticises them is a right-wing populist, but in the film, I don't accuse them of being elitist, I accuse them of dealing with bulls**t; it's corporate bulls**t," Ostlund says.

The movie, told in Swedish and English, also stars Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss playing a journalist, The Wire's Dominic West, and Terry Notary, a "performance capture artist" who appears in one of the films many memorable scenes at a black-tie gala fund-raising dinner at the museum.

"I did not plan to have an international cast," Ostlund says. "But I have an American agent who wanted me to meet with a couple of actors in London. I met Moss and we were doing improvisations of the scene where she is confronting Christian at the museum, and she was so good at putting me in the corner that I had to cast her."

The Square screens on December 7 at 9.15pm at Vox 1, Mall of the Emirates, and December 8 at 7.30pm at Galleria Mall