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Few seemed more surprised than Ruben Ostlund when the Cannes jury announced him, and his film The Square, as the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or.
Almost no one, and certainly not the film’s director, expected the dark Swedish satire of the art world, featuring Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, to take art house cinema’s top honor.
“When they said my name, I screamed straight out,” recalls Ostlund. “And then I was hugging (The Square star) Claes Bang, my girlfriend and the film’s producers. It was surreal. Beautiful, but surreal.”
Cannes critics had lauded The Square — The Hollywood Reporter‘s chief critic Todd McCarthy called it “a potent, disturbing work that explores the boundaries of political correctness, artistic liberty and free speech in provocative ways” — but the film felt too unconventional and, frankly, too funny, to take the Palme.
For some, it also seemed too close to home. The story of a museum curator (Bang) who begins questioning his life and his commitment to the pristine liberal values after his cell phone is stolen, tears through the pretensions of the art world, a world not too far removed from Cannes’ society of champagne and socially conscious cinema.
The film’s central image —an art installation called The Square, which represents a sanctuary of humanitarian values and equal rights —draws attention to how far the “right thinking society” has fallen short of its ideals. This is made clear in a central scene where a “animal performer,” played by Terry Notary, the American actor who did motion-capture performances for the Planet of the Apes films, disrupts a grand formal dinner of celebrities and wealthy patrons. The resulting chaos likely sent a chill down the spine of many a Cannes grandee.
Speaking to THR‘s European bureau chief Scott Roxborough, Ostlund said art house cinema needs to be shaken out of its pretensions and “rituals,” but still believes art can make a difference in the real world.
The film is incredibly ambitious and addresses all sorts of themes, from social consciousness to the purpose of art. What was the start of the story, and what was the original source of inspiration?
The starting point was actually me and a friend of mine called Kalle Boman: we had an idea of creating a symbolic place that should remind us of our common responsibility. Which was The Square, this 4 x 4 meter space representing universal values. We were invited to the art museum in Varnamo in Sweden, and we built the first physical square in the main square of that city. By then I had the idea of starting to work on a script about both this symbolic place and the art installation, because I thought it raised questions that were important for our time. So The Square itself was the starting point. Now there are three: there’s one in Sweden and two in Norway.
What about the other works of art that you present in the film: are they real or created for the movie?
The piles of gravel installation is inspired by the work of Robert Smithson, the American installation artist. The work where you have to push the button “I trust people/I don’t trust people,” was something Kalle and I had in our exhibition. In front of The Square we have this real image of Garry Winogrand, a classic American street photographer. The monkey imitation scene was something, of course, I made up, together with Terry (Notary). So it’s a little bit of a mixture, but mostly it’s art pieces that are made up.
So do you take the goal of The Square, the art, seriously? Because the film seems to spend most of its time poking fun at the pretensions of the art world.
I was traveling around a lot when I was doing research for the film. And you go to different art, contemporary art, museums and you see the exact same things in these museums. You know: it’s something in neon on the wall and then there’s a pile of gravel or a couple of mirrors or something like that. And it’s really disconnected from what’s going on outside the walls of the museum. You know when (Dada artist Marcel) Duchamp put the pissoir, the urinal, in the museum, it was a provocation. It was a provocation to the room, to the idea of a museum and the idea of art. Nowadays, I don’t get provoked when I see this kind of art. It doesn’t raise any questions for me. It’s become a ritual and a tradition. And I think the same thing has happened with cinema, with art house cinema. Its “provocation” has become conventional — instead of something that has content, has a meaning for the real world.
This is an unfair question to ask a director, but why do you think your film has content and isn’t just an art house ritual?
Well, I think one of the goals of the film was to break the genre of the art house film, the idea that a serious film has to be done in a certain way. A film that deals with important topics, the films that get shown in Cannes, tend to be a kind of art house genre movie, we know their conventions. And I think these kind of genre movies are just as posing, just as fake, as a Hollywood romantic comedy or any other genre film. So I wanted to do a film that was entertaining and funny, but still was dealing with topics that were right there in the middle of our time. For me making movies has never been just about making a good film: it’s about combining making a good film with having real content. I think that’s important and that I think there’s a lack of that in the cinema industry.
Do you worry how the film will be received now that it’s won the Palme d’Or and will be seen by a lot more people around the world?
I’m not too worried about that because we have had a lot of screenings, and my feeling is that everybody is getting the film. I personally I don’t think that the content is too intellectual or anything. I think these are discussions that everybody has with each other dealing with the issues of our time. For me when I’m making a film, I talk to everybody about the scenes, the topics and things like that and I can’t see any difference between the opinions of the local baker or the taxi driver or the culture minister of Sweden. I think that everybody has a relationship to the topics and the thematics of The Square. I really, really hope that people will still be interested in going to the cinema to both be entertained and laugh, but at the same time have something to deal with when you leave the cinema. To talk about what you have seen. I’m curious, very curious.
I guess one of the big questions in your film is whether art can have an impact on people in the real world. What’s your conclusion after making this film and seeing its impact on people?
Well, one thing that people ask is does art change people or does art change the world. The problem is that all art changes people, all movies that are made and seen change people. So if you have a lot of movies, say, where people run around pointing guns at each other, we will reproduce that, we’ll imitate that. And the same goes for films with other content, like (Cannes competition title) Loveless or The Square or whatever. The more people these films reach, the more they can change. So the battlefield is actually to get the attention for the kind of movie that you believe in, that you think is progress for a society. And, of course, the Palme d’Or is a fantastic way of getting attention. The Palme d’Or will help the film to travel and help the film to reach a lot of people. But we are fighting against an industry that has an inconceivable marketing budget, compared to this tiny movie (The Square‘s budget was $5.5 million). But that’s where we are and that’s where the battlefield is.
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