During the Zurich Film Festival, a rising star among the European cinema events, New Europe’s Federico Grandesso sat down with Swedish film director Ruben Östlund to discuss his most recent film “The Square” a satirical drama that garnered the Scandinavian director the Palme d’Or at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival and an Oscar nomination for best foreign film. The plot, which savagely ridicules the contemporary art world, also looks at various socio-political issues gripping contemporary Swedish society, including asking deeper questions about the country’s reputation as a bastion of political correctness and the universal attitude of mistrust in modern society.
In the story, Christian is the curator of the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, formerly the Royal Palace. He is interviewed by a journalist, Anne, and struggled to to explain to her particular museum jargon.
He is later dragged into a confrontation in a pedestrian zone, after which Christian notices that his smartphone and wallet are missing, presumably stolen. He is able to locate his stolen phone using his computer, which he and his assistant Michael trace to a large apartment block. They write a threatening anonymous letter demanding the return of the phone and wallet by depositing them at a nearby store.
Christian throws a copy of the letter in each apartment mailbox at night. Several days later, a package for Christian is actually deposited at the store, containing the phone and the completely untouched wallet. Euphoric after the success of his plan, Christian goes to a party where he meets Anne again and ends up in her apartment. After they have sex, Anne offers to throw away his used condom but, feeling threatened, he steadfastly refuses to hand it over to her. They argue over the situation, as she believes he does not trust her to dispose of the semen rather than take it. Several days later, she meets him in the museum saying she wants more from him than casual sex. She asks him if he feels the same, but he appears to be less than enthusiastic about entering into a serious relationship with her.
When Anne later tries to call him, he does not pick up the phone. The day after picking up the package containing his phone and wallet, Christian is informed that a second package has arrived for him at a 24-hour mini-market. Suspicious, he sends Michael to pick it up. In the store, Michael is confronted by a young boy who states that his parents believe that he is a thief because of the letter and demands that Christian apologise to him and his family or the boy will create “chaos” for Christian at a time when he has to manage the promotion of a new exhibition centered on an art piece called “The Square” by Lola Arias. The artist describes the Square as, “A sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
Contemporary art is one of the main topics of your film, how did you use it?
The art scene itself is a quite an interesting place because it has the possibility to embrace the idea of “the Square” and there are not so many areas in society where we could discuss these concepts ‘out of the box’. I think there are a lot of good things about the art scene, but there is a problem in these contemporary art museums that exhibit art…they deal with rituals and conventions that just repeat themselves. When I was doing the research for this movie, I noticed in these museums that you can see a Warhol, a Giacometti, or another famous piece of art on the wall, then you have another popular object on the floor, but this doesn’t lead you to any new thoughts.
Your movie criticises contemporary media and how we communicate, Can you explain your position?
I really wanted to point out the type of media climate we live in today because I think it is a little bit scary how attention is everything and content is very secondary. If you look at the fact that in politics today…to be elected, you need to be exposed. And how do you get exposure? By looking for a conflict. So, you see these politicians who have a very radical message getting a lot of attention and then getting elected. Extreme right-wing parties are getting so much exposure and we that means we are going to hear more and more sensational quotes and ideas.
Do you think the media has a responsibility as to how they need to communicate delicate issues related to Islamic extremism?
If you look at the terror events that were going on in the world recently, the media did not have the type of self-criticism to admit how counterproductive they were…how they actually created this phenomenon. (The never asked themselves) It we hadn’t reported it in the way we did…? Now, the media is like a huge PR agency for terror organisations. I wouldn’t know what IS was if it wasn’t for the media and the way they were reporting about it. If you look at the Bataclan, (the 2014 mass shooting of Paris concert-goers who were attending a rock when Islamist militants stormed the building and killed scores in the process) in Sweden, you could watch live stream pictures of the tragedy but first you had to watch an ad (before the stream went live).There is something very scary about that. To get attention is the first and most important thing; the content is the second. You have to be careful when you use other people tragedies in order to draw their attention to ads.
Your movie is based on a series of dilemmas, Why?
I love the idea of a dilemma. The set up is that you have two or more options, but none of them is easy. You are then pushed into a corner and you have to choose either one of them…there will be consequences for both of them. It’s interesting to find a nice dilemma that the audience would also embrace and to think about how they would react in that situation according to their moral values.
Beggars and how we relate to them are important elements in the film. Can you tell me about the situation in Sweden?
About beggars in Scandinavia? We are quite new to this. The situation changed quite quickly when the Schengen treaty allowed everybody to travel freely. After that, a lot of Romanian beggars were suddenly on the street. It was a shock for us because we were used to having a state safety net that would catch these people before they could end up on the streets. There was a question in our minds then – “Is this the responsibility of the state or it is our responsibility as individuals?” We brought on this problem at the societal level and we increased taxes in order to help these people. We should deal with these problems together, even if we were confused by someone saying that there were some fraudulent cases of misuse of the social security net.
Why is a museum the set of your movie?
I liked the idea of a kind of artificial room that a museum really is. An art museum is the intellectual civilised ideal and the sophisticated version of being a human being, so It was an interesting environment for me to put it in conflict with the performing artist who was dominated by instinct and needs.