The Highest Level of Ambition

in 70th Cannes International Film Festival

by Mode Steinkjer

Ruben Östlund from Sweden succeeded where even Ingmar Bergman failed – winning the Palme d’Or in Cannes for an individual film.

The Palme d’Or for Ruben Östlund’s The Square (Rutan) in Cannes is a victory for film art that is significant, visionary and original. This award may also influence the future of the film industry, how filmmakers ought to think and how bold producers can dare to be. Film as art and the movie theatre as its primary screening arena, can breathe a sigh of relief after this year’s Palme d’Or.

Ruben Östlund proves an increasing ambition for every film he makes, and when it comes to visual sculpturing and conceptualisation of content, The Square has taken this to its limit. He was approved for the Cannes competition on overtime, allegedly after he had fought tooth and nail about the very last spot, and after he was forced to edit the film down in record time. The fact that it is still nearly two and a half hour long is a noticeable consequence of this. The film is not as narratively assured as his previous work, Force Majeure (Turist, 2014), but comes across as an episodic film that hits Swedish conformity where it hurts the most. He compensates for the lack of tightness with energy, a refusal to compromise and an atmosphere of grandeur. Finally, and not least, Östlund has the courage to dig deep into the unpleasantness and paradoxes that arise when one tears down the wafer-thin walls people erect around themselves so they can keep on acting according to their instincts.

Östlund is still more linear in his storytelling style than, for example, his compatriot Roy Andersson, who employs an episodic approach too, but in The Square, he like Andersson, discusses how we are handling the downfall itself as it occurs. Ruben Östlund’s major themes are human herd behaviour and our willingness to accept the most unpleasant and embarrassing situations, however humiliating. The Square turns into a sociological laboratory where people’s inherited patterns of behaviour and reactions are tested. In Force Majeure, the Scandinavian nuclear family and male gender roles were explored, and in Play (2011) and Involuntary (De ofrivilliga, 2008) we saw how individuals were yanked out of the norms of society. In The Square everything revolves around our ability to recognise ourselves, and our inner fear of being unable to live up to the prevailing humanist values.

The protagonist is Christian (played by Danish actor Claes Bang), top curator at a modern museum and a guru in the art scene in Sweden as well as abroad. He is about to launch a piece of art titled The Square, a quadratic installation into which people can enter, where everyone has the same value and the same rights regardless of background and position. Christian, however, is facing a challenge: how to communicate to others what the piece of art symbolizes. He makes quite a few terrible mistakes, and striking situations that everyone can recognise themselves in turn into a downward spiral for this successful, self-centred and emotionally stunted man. Östlund not only undresses a navel-gazing and pompous art scene, he also reveals how we subconsciously hide among our own, as if we were herd animals.

Östlund hits hard with The Square, not only against the elevated «cultured man» as a phenomenon, but also established scenes where no one dares break the set pattern, and against the elites in general. At the same time, we recognise his trademark tenderness towards people falling foul of the system, such as beggars and the homeless. As sociological cases of study the individual scenes are formidable, each one is like a grandiose drama painted on a vast canvas. But above all, this the film shows our inherent fear of being taken for a ride by our instincts and that this might lead to the collapse of conventions and thus control. The best example is the scene shot at Grand Hotel in Stockholm, during a banquet. The night’s entertainment is a performance: an artist stripped to the waist (played by Terry Notary) pretends to be a wild ape. At first, the guests are enthusiastic, but then fear enters the picture when it becomes apparent that he is refusing to stop playing the role of a harassing, clearly extremely dangerous, violent ape. The question is: when will the guests dare to protest without risking to stand out from the crowd or lose face?

This scene, one of the most marvelous and funniest we have ever seen, was shot “only” 30 times before Östlund was satisfied. Some scenes with Bang alone or together with Elisabeth Moss, who is playing an American arts journalist, required up to 120 takes. This says something about Östlund’s level of ambition. How people attempt to make themselves smaller to avoid being seen is only one of the products of this humorous and satirical tour de force. On a deeper level the film strikes at the political correctness that is about to strangle debate and discussion about the society we live in.

Ingmar Bergman never won the Palme d’Or for an individual film but received an honorary Palm towards the end of his career. Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or is the first one for Sweden since Alf Sjöberg’s Miss Julie in 1951, and it does not come out of the blue. Östlund has slowly, determinedly and loudly built himself up to this, through the socially aware, uncompromising art films Involuntary, Play and, not least, Force Majeure, which many thought deserved a place in the main competition in Cannes rather than a side programme. This year Östlund fought himself into the competition. This is very unlike Scandinavian conventions. The same goes for inviting the entire gala-clad audience in the Cannes Festival Palais to join in a primal scream to celebrate his Palme d’Or. Östlund did both, as if to emphasise that right now, he is one of the world’s most important filmmakers.

Edited by Alissa Simon