From the Archive: Ruben Östlund on 'Force Majeure' and 'The Square'

Nothing Concrete text
15 Jul 2020

In this archive episode, we look back at two interviews with Swedish film director Ruben Östlund, exploring the deconstruction of a nuclear family unit on holiday, as well as the satire of the art world.

 

I said when we start this project we had two main goals – the first one was to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history and the second one was we should increase the percentage of divorce in society

 

From the Archive sees us dig into our extensive contemporary and classical music and cinema podcast archive as we rediscover interviews and discussions with artists, with our long-standing producer and presenter, Ben Eshmade. 

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From the Archive: Ruben Östlund

In this archive episode, we look back at two interviews with Swedish film director Ruben Östlund, exploring the deconstruction of a nuclear family unit on holiday, as well as the satire of the art world.

Transcript

BE: Hello and welcome to nothing concrete, the Barbican podcast. I'm Ben Eshmeade and this week's archive edition focuses on idiosyncratic Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund. As we discover more about the power of his breakthrough films, Force Majeure and The Square

RO: I said when we started this project, I said we had two main goals. First one was to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history. And the second one was that we should increase the percentage of divorce in society.

BE: So we begin in a ski chalet in the French Alps with Ruben Östlund's 2014 film Force Majeure, an exploration of how one uncontrollable event can shatter a father and his family into pieces. Let's learn more about the emotional explosion of Östlund's film with the director.

RO: Well, first of all, I I started out as a ski filmmaker, I was filming skiing in the Alps and a little bit in North America, and a little bit in Scandinavia. And I have always, since I quit making ski films and left the ski world and start on film school in Gothenburg, I've been looking for a way to get back into that environment. But it has been really, really hard to find a topic that is interesting enough, you know, people are dressed in neon colours. They have these mirror Google lenses and it's a very kitschy world. But then I saw a YouTube clip on internet of a group of tourists sitting high up in the in the mountains in the French Alps, on an outdoor restaurant, and they are watching an avalanche that tumbles down a distant mountainside, in the beginning, they're like, wow, beautiful. Well, an avalanche cracks up and gets bigger and the cheering gets louder. And like in three seconds the cheering goes from joyful laughter to screams in total panic. And I thought it was so interesting to have those two different moods in life so close to each other.
 

One thing that we want to experience things that are exciting and, but the next, the thing that we really don't want to experience like fear of Death was happening, you're so close to each other. In the YouTube clip, it's also only the snow smoke that reaches the restaurant and people are fleeing in panic. And then they have to go back to the seats. And I really love the feeling of shame that they have to deal with because they were feeling oh maybe we lose, lost control. Maybe we were exaggerating. I would like to compare that situation with something that I always think is funny and tragic. At the same time, you know, when you see people are in the zoo, and they are watching the lions in the lion pit, and suddenly there's someone falling into the lamb pit. It's always something very humoristic in that very, very tragic moment, like human being thinking that we can control the power of nature, the force of nature, and suddenly we are in the middle of the danger of it.

And so that was like the starting point. And I was thinking of putting a family on this outdoor restaurant. I told about this situation to a friend of mine that is an actor. And he has a lot of guilt in his body, you can see that he has done things in his life that he's ashamed of. And the day after he heard about the avalanche situation, avalanche scene, he came back to me and said, 'What if it's only the father that runs away?' And I immediately when he said that I you know, I had a feeling in my body. Wow. This is what the film is going to be about. This is the starting point of the feature film. 

Clip from Force Majeure

Where do you come from? 

From Sweden

Sweden, very good!

I make you two take a picture together. Come on. One, two, smile, good one!

BE: The film starts with the family being photoed. And I think that immediately sets the idea in your head of the perfect family. We have here the perfect family, but then you kind of, I suppose, for exaggeration, you explode that family or you take that dissect that family apart. 

RO: I think that there's a lot of different things that I'm interested in that opening scene, one of them is that if you look at the commercials when it comes to holiday, it's like we are predicting this is payback time for the man. Now the man should spend time together with his wife and his kids because he has been working so much. And a lot of times when you see commercials when it comes to holiday, you can see that it's the woman sitting in the sun chair with a drink in her hand, watching the father play with kids. You have all those kind of expectations on vacation and on the holiday and they are trying to live up to this expectation, they are trying to live up to being the perfect and happy family. It's also that like, the way that the photographer is arranging this picture is, it's very easy to to put it in the way that we are looking at them, okay, they are the perfect family.

For me it also means being a man and being a woman, and also being a child in the nuclear family is playing a role. So Thomas is playing the role of the Father, everybody's playing the role of the mother and he's supposed to be protected, protecting them or like being a little bit higher, and then put his arms around them and things like that. So they, I think there's a lot of things that is showing on our expectations when when we look at that, arranging that picture.

BE: How much time did you spend sort of casting and getting your family right?

RO: I was looking for, for example, I was looking for the actors for two months, the one that is most painful watching when he's trying to lie. The one that is really struggling with not losing face in front of other people, and then put himself into a corner where he's very, very insecure. So you know, some actors, they are almost like psychopaths, you know, they have no problem to lie at all. They can say, 'No, I didn't run from the avalanche'. It's your, it's just your perception of it. It was your perspective of what happened, but I don't agree. But with Johannes Bah Kuhnke,  he could really really express the feeling of he's lying and we can see it. But we still have, we still understand why you have put himself in that position. And I think that the same thing with Lisa Loven Kongsli  who plays Ebba, that I was looking for someone that you could see the conflict taking place on the inside.

This was a very hard film for me to make because all the other films that I have made is very practical situations people are relating to each other in the room. And if one character goes from here over here, then something happens but this time, a lot of the conflict is a very emotional thing that they have to deal with. So on the character Ebba I was looking at her face and is she expressing the conflict she feels inside, things like that, I guess. But in many ways, I also wanted them to be like a little bit of a picture perfect couple. I wanted them to have everything that we are aiming for in our society. They live in a five star hotel. They have two beautiful kids. They are beautiful. He is successful when it comes to the work, but still I just want to, yeah, crush that

BE: What was quite interesting as a viewer is that you kind of help us to question, because we see this couple's relationship through the eyes of the children. We even see it through the eyes of the cleaner.

RO: Yeah, yeah, sure. Yeah, I think I think that exactly what I was aiming for with the different characters, that they should highlight a different perspective of looking at like the nuclear family lifestyle. I mean, we have Charlotte as the promiscuous woman that is living in this open relationship. And I think that a lot of the decisions I do when it comes to the film is to turn over our expectations. For an example, if you look at Charlotte in the end, there's like a bus ride. And she's the only one left in the bus. But everybody else think the bus would crush crush down a mountainside.

And here comes the spoiler alert: Charlotte is a character that always is killed or punished in any way in other films, you know, because she's not living this nuclear lifestyle that she's supposed to, and then she has to die in the end of the film. But in my movie, she's the only one that catches her flag and goes away to the airport, and everyone else is punished in some way. So but I wanted  those different characters to highlight, highlight the couple of Tomas and Ebba of course. And I mean, for me, the cleaner is also maybe putting in a little bit of a class perspective on it, because he can't relate hundred percent to the kind of problems that they have.

BE: And you know, the other thing which I find quite fascinating is the fact that not a lot happens. I mean, not a lot in a standard, you know, a thriller, an action film as such, but the title, that's the thing you have before you go and watch this film, and it's a very, it's a very powerful title.

RO: Yeah. I mean, Force Majeure. That's a word that you at least in Sweden, you get connected to the first time you're travelling because when you are having an insurance, it's like the legal term of Force Majeure. And I mean, for me, that's exactly what it is happening in between the couple. I mean,  there's a force majeure, something have happened and all the other rules that were not usable anymore they are, they're not you can't rely on them anymore, they are totally new ground that they have to deal with. For me, I mean, since I have been interested in the way that expectations on gender like when Tomas is running away from the family when he's supposed to protect them, even though no one gets hurt, they still have a huge problem. And this is actually true when it comes to incidents in real life.

Also, I've been reading investigations about airplane hijackings. And you can tell from those investigations that the frequency of divorce is extremely high between couples and families. And of course, this is also about that you see a side of your partner that is, I don't want to continue to live with this egoistic person that doesn't protect his family. 

BE: There's also, there's a sense of humour. I think that you know, let's let's not forget that,  I love like, for instance, the incredible accordion playing and accompanied by what sounds like cannons, but it's in fact the sort of, I think it's the the maintenance of the hillside.

RO: Yeah, it's, it's called Gazex Cubes. And if you have been in the French Alps they are quite common, they use them to trigger avalanches, when the ski system is not open, but I wanted to use them as, yeah, that's like they are in a war zone. And I mean the whole ski resort itself is quite interesting because the modern ski resort that was created in France during the 50s is a total economical plan. They were not knowing exactly what to do within the nature resources in the Alps. And suddenly someone came up with ideas, just exploit them and make ski resorts. They had a 30 year plan of building 300 thousands beds in that region in France, which is quite astonishing, and it's really changed the lifestyle of Scandinavia and also Great Britain, the culture of what we do when we go on holiday.

And also there's something that's almost like a metaphorical level. When it comes to the ski resort because there's a constant struggle between man and nature. We have this civilization, and it's just placed in the middle of the wild nature. And in the wild nature, we have the forces that can be released, and human have a lot of inventions to try to control that force. And yeah, we have all those lifts system go on down the hillside. So even though it was not my intention from the beginning, then when I was making the film, suddenly I realised, wow. It's going to be a metaphor, what's happening in the family. We're trying to control the force of nature and we're trying to hide it under under something that is a civilised facade. 

BE: It's also the idea of, I think, the contract of marriage 

RO: And I mean, I'm interested in how we are signing to that contract because I think we do it without even thinking about it. I think that if we look at the kind of culture that we live in, for example, look at the Anglo Saxon cinema. I think probably the most reproduced character in Anglo Saxon cinema is the man as a hero. Maybe it's a woman as a sex object, that's probably more produced, but the man as a hero, is, is very common. And if you look at the structure of a lot of American films, there's a family that lives in peace, suddenly, there is an outside threat. So the father in the family has to use violence, to restore the normality and when you have defeated the enemy, he can go back and live in peace again, I think that we also have to look at those films in a very critical way because they are used of reproducing an ideology.

Because if we don't have movies that say that men should be loyal towards something bigger, they should stand up for a country, they should  be able to use violence if we need, then it would be impossible to send young men into war. These kind of characters that are reproduced, actually, is also a way of building an ideology in society. And when I just think about myself when I was starting to go into a relationship, and I'm starting to try to adapt to all those expectations as a man, of course they have influenced me

Clip from Force Majeure:

Everyone is fine. I mean, 

they...

You got so scared that you ran away from the table

RO: There's something that I'm quite proud of is that I have never killed any of my characters. And I think that's very odd when it comes to movie-making. So, yeah I can tell you that any movie you will see in the future for me, I will never kill any characters. So you don't have to be worried about that. You have to be worried about shame. You have to be worried about like, losing face in front of each other. And I think that's probably something that we sometimes are even more scared of, than death. So it's still, it's a very horror movie, but no one is killed.

BE: It was quite interesting because I watched the film with my girlfriend sitting next to me and we talked about it afterwards. And we both had a slightly different take on it, which I suppose is that something you found?

RO: Yeah. As I said, when we started a project, I said that we had two main goals with the film. The first one was to create the most spectacular avalanche scene in film history. And the second one was that we should increase the percentage of divorce in society. Now, when I introduce the film, when I go to screenings, I often say that you can use the film as a relationship test instead of spending like 10 or 20 years together and then break up, maybe first this might make you come to a quicker decision.

BE: Have you been surprised by success?

RO: I'm really happy about it. And it's also need to have been going really, really well in the cinemas also. So I think it's the first time that distributors are making money and myself. And that's, of course, that's good. I mean, my previous film 'Play', I was investigating stereotypes when it came to skin colour, and black boys playing along with a stereotype, using this stereotype that is around black skin colour in our society. It's interesting to see that as a topic that is really, really important in society today doesn't actually fit that good into the distribution system of cinema.

But as soon as you take a ski resort, you take a five star luxury hotel, you take a nuclear family, people are very attracted and go buy tickets to it. So it's also about the topic that something gets successful and we have to not forget about that. But I think that I'm most surprised always like the kind of successes I've had in the US because I have never been aiming for like Hollywood or that part of the movie industry, I've always thought that they will never like my films, but that first year they have been very, very positive.

BE: Is that opening up interesting questions of where you go next?

RO: There's a lot of scripts that there is sent to me and a lot of them always ends with, you know, when you read the synopsis, it's like, and it's also a love story. And it's like, why is it also a love story? And but, but there there I think there's something that is quite a big problem in our business and the way that media is treating our business, is that the ultimate goal for everything dealing with cinema is the Oscars and Hollywood. I mean, I know so many people that have tried to move over to LA, have made a couple of films and then came back to Scandinavia and just were unhappy. You know, there's like this ratio when it comes to films that are made. For example if you look at Sony Pictures in the US, they are making one out 36 projects that they are starting. So there are a lot of people working with developing working when writing and the project project never happens.

So that's like the thing that you have to balance with because of course, I'm interested in the kind of distribution system they have in the US. And of course, I'm interested in spreading the film to a lot of different countries. But still, you have to control a production mechanism that looks totally different from what I'm used to in Sweden. So maybe I'm just in this startup on my new project and I'm thinking, 'should I make an English language film?' or 'should I make a Swedish language film again?', that's the dilemma.

BE: I can tell you for certain I've never been on a skiing holiday and I'm never going on skiing holiday.

RO: And I don't know if I should be happy about that because you know, all my friends in the ski world, because I said also in the beginning that I wanted to lower the percentage of ski travels, but they were so mad at me. 'Why do you want to do that?' So I'm not happy to hear that you're not going. I think you should go and skii today. There are some qualities actually, but don't go with your family.

BE: From a deconstruction of the nuclear family unit on holiday, to a film that gently satirises the art world in 2017 Palme d'Or winning film The Square. The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations. Let's step inside its boundaries

Clip: I wanted to put myself into a corner with the situations that Christian is handling in the film. It's interesting how we look at him. If we think that he's on record, I don't like him, I don't like him. Or if we think oh my god, I would do the same thing. I would have the same thing. And the last thing is what I want the audience to think.

BE: In The Square, we follow the life of Christian, a prestigious Stockholm Museum's chief art curator, who finds himself in a time of both professional and personal crisis as he attempts to set up a controversial new exhibit. The film features additional performances from Elisabeth Moss as journalist and Dominic West as artists Julian, and Terry Notary is Oleg whose animalistic performance steals the film and features on the film's poster.

Clip: What are the biggest challenges in running a museum? Or a museum of modern and contemporary art? So we need to present art that is of the order today, art that is absolutely cutting edge and the competition is fierce.

BE: I once again joined Ruben to discuss the origins of The Square. Could you explain where the concept of the square itself came from?

RO: Yeah, it came from when I was doing a feature film called 'Play'. And 'Play' was in spite of true events where there was a group of boys robbing our young boys in the centre of the city where I live in Sweden, in Gothenburg. And I read through the court files of these robberies, and what you could tell was that it was very seldom that any adult interacted with the kids and tried to stop the robberies. And this was even though that these robberies were going on for three years time. It never happened that the kids were asking adults for help. So it was like the kids world and adults world were taking place in two parallel levels. And then I talked to my father about this. And he told me the same story that also is in The Square, that when he was six years old, and he was brought up in Stockholm during the 50s, his parents put an address tag around his neck, and send him out, just play all alone. And he described it as that back in the 50s. You look at other adults as a potential helper to you, that they would help your kid if you ended up in trouble. Then a friend of mine and me, we came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place that reminds of that another social contract is possible and the symbolic face was like a white mark square.

We should try to build up an agreement around it and if someone is standing in the square, then it's my obligation to address this person and ask them how can I help you so it could break the bystander effet. And I never considered this as an art piece. I would like to compare it more with a pedestrian crossing. Because you know, a pedestrian crossing is a very beautiful invention. If you think about it, we just take it for obvious that it exists, but the invention is genius. You know, with a couple of lines in the street, we have managed to create a social contract that the car drivers should be careful with the pedestrians. And if you look at the traffic rules, it is quite extraordinary that we agree on them. All the cars here are driving on the left side of the road. Isn't that great? In Sweden, everybody's driving on the right side of the road. And in Sweden, we actually changed from left hand traffic to right hand traffic during one night in the 60s. So the state went out and said tomorrow everybody's going to drive on the right side of the road, and they were actually less accidents. The upcoming weekend standing had been in the history of traffic in Sweden before. This says something about us, about our ability of organising ourselves and doing things, having a common project. That is what a society is about. In order to change our behaviour when we are not treating each other good, and then there's also the possibility to change our behaviour by creating something that is like a humanistic traffic sign. I believe that, of course, you have to work a lot in order to make people know about this traffic sign. It's just as big work as making the people know about the traffic rules. So that's the depth that was the starting point of the project. 

Clip from The Square:

If you place an object in the museum, for instance, if we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?

BE: We haven't mentioned Christian yet, and he's the character that we follow the journey through the film. I mean, there's a lot of stuff going on around him within his job as a curator, but it's his journey and eventual possible redemption that we celebrate.

RO: Yes, I think that when I've been writing both Force Majeure and The Square I have had like the main character, or the one that we are following through the film is a male character. And I think that I have written him from experiences that I've had myself of being in a power position, so to speak, and how I have been dealing with moral and ethical questions on an individual level. At the same time that I also believe that his humanistic values are important, I think most of us believe that. Because I think it's more interesting to challenge myself than trying to have a character that has a specific background that I don't share. So I wanted to put myself into a corner with the situations that Christian is handling in the film.

But I think it's interesting when someone is doing wrong or trying to deal with these situations that he's dealing with. It's interesting how we look at him. If we think that he's um, oh m god, I don't like him, I don't like him. Or if we think oh my god, I would do the same thing. I would have the same thing. And the last thing is what I want the audience to think.

BE: I need to talk about the scene that's on the poster behind me, that is kind of like symbolic of at least some of the things we're trying to achieve for the film. We have a performance artist who is being an ape, a chimpanzee, and challenging everyone in this bourgeois dining room, the amount of tension and drama that's kind of created by this challenge.

RO: Yeah, but it's interesting to talk about that scene because I think the reason that the extras had the ability of playing that well, and actors also, of course, is much about Terry Notary's performance every time he entered that room, and he was also bringing in a scary feeling that we don't know what will happen, even though we have a very precise, choreographed way of moving in the image in each and every shot, but it's fun when you talk about this in order to talk about the original decision, because when we made The Square, my goal was that the film should be in competition in Cannes, and I loved it. That we will have a tuxedo, black tie dressed audience watching another black tie dress audience trying to deal with this crazy performance artist. My feeling when I was at the Cannes screening, it was like they didn't realise that they had a black tie on. They were just watching.

Clip from The Square:
Man imitates an ape's noises

BE: When you have actors like Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West coming in to this film, where do they come into the process and how do you guide them into your world?

RO: I think that one thing that I was a little bit nervous when it came to both Dominic and Elisabeth was that they should be like guest appearance of more famous actors. I did improv with them when I was here in London. Like before we started out with the shooting, they were just so good. So I felt when I watched the material of those improvs that I, I have to take the risk, I have to try and put them in the film, I felt like as soon as I believe in them, as soon as I believe in this setup of decision, and I believe in that they are there and I believe in their actions, then I never had that guest appearance fitting into it.

Then I just saw the character that Elisabeth is creating. I think she's actually the one of the few that really creates a character in the film. Also, also Dominic, because he's playing like a version of Julian Schnabel. Yeah. Then then I stopped being scared. And then I start to have really, really fun working with them.

Clip from The Square:

Do you just go have sex with just anybody? 

Excuse me? 

Do you just go have sex with lots of other women?

Is this something that you do a lot?

Kind of a private question isn't it? 

Wow. So is being inside me pretty private, so....

Umm, where's the connection there?

I'm asking how often you do it?

BE: Obviously you won the Palme d'Or, and you've just mentioned, which I found really interesting the idea of, that it was kind of aimed and focused at that. But I mean, interesting to ask you your idea of success. You've now had what some would consider the ultimate prestige, your peers telling you, you're very good. You're great. Do you think it'll be a struggle after this?

RO: I think since it's my fifth feature film I, I hope it will not be and I already know what I want to do with the next film. So if I wouldn't have an idea and I'm struggling to find an idea, then I would be nervous, of course. But I think it's hard or maybe if you win that prize too early. Because then now I have worked in a way and found out how I want to work. And I have found my method, so to speak. So I feel that I can rely on that method a little bit. But when you make your first few movies, then you're quite lost after the film is finished. So then it would be something different. And now it's an interesting, interesting way to talk about this book, because we can take up a little bit what it is like to be a director, because being a director is like you are, you're dealing with so much psychological pressure. So it's crazy. And I have to tell you a little anecdote that is about a friend of mine.

And I went to the same film school as he did. He was starting to work on a feature film that was a script that he didn't read right. And every day he got driven by a driver that took him to the set and it was like a half an hour drive. And when he started out, he felt like 'oh my God, this film is going to be so bad'. He felt that all from the beginning, and these are feelings you're struggling constantly with as a director. So it's nothing unusual and then when it was going day one, day two, day three, and it's like he felt it's going really, really down the drain this film, it's going to be awful. It came to a point where they stopped putting on the car belts because he was hoping for an accident that will save him out of this horrible situation. Luckily, no accident happen. But I think it's pointing out exactly the kind of pressure that you're dealing with.

BE: Yeah, I wouldn't like to do your job.

RO: I know why, and I often think when I'm getting into that car, that it is supposed to drive me to set, that I'm seeing like people are cutting grass and like they are loners. And I feel like why, why did I choose this?

BE: The Square is a film of fantastic and farcical encounters, making this unique cinematic journey through the art underworld. To sum up, Ruben Östlund's films are a joy to behold and as he mentioned, no one ever dies which can only be a good thing.

I'm Ben Eshmeade, thanks for listening to this archive edition of nothing concrete, the barber comm podcast here to inspire more people to discover and love the arts with weekly episodes of archive finds and theme series. Subscribe to nothing concrete on a cast Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts. And if you can leave us a review to help us get the word out.

 

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