Ruben Östlund: ‘I worry that left-wing people misunderstand Marx’

An encounter with homeless children in Ireland spurred the director to make films that challenge political beliefs

In a strange twist of fate, the late former taoiseach Jack Lynch and his wife Maureen had a hand in Ruben Östlund's Oscar-nominated The Square. Back in 1967, Östlund's parents, both Swedish Communists, were hitchhiking around Ireland when they were picked up by an obliging couple.

“It’s a really funny story that my parents used to tell,” says the director. “They were all together in the car and suddenly my father is discussing the political situation and in front, the wife is nudging her husband. And eventually, in a very sweet voice, she says: ‘My husband is the prime minister.’ And they all had a very nice conversation.”

In fact, his parents had such a nice time that they brought Ruben and his older brother back to Ireland in the 1980s. After they landed in Dublin, the future film-maker encountered homelessness for the first time, an experience that would, decades later, inform his Academy Award contender.

Much of the film plays like a cross between 'The Good Place' and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm', converting moral quandaries into squirming comic entertainment

“What I remember most strongly – and I think it was in Cork rather than Dublin – was seeing kids begging on the street. I don’t know that they were homeless. But I remember my father gave one of them money and three more arrived to ask for money. And I was struck that they were the same age as me. I was 11 or 12. I had never seen homeless people or people begging before. So that was a completely new experience for me.”

In one of many ethical dilemmas presented by The Square, the film's protagonist Christian (in a breakthrough performance by Danish actor Claes Bang), the curator of a contemporary art museum, walks into a fast-food emporium, and encounters a homeless woman by the doorway. She asks him for some change but he has nothing to give. He offers to buy her something to eat instead. "Chicken ciabatta," she requests. "And no onions." Christian responds with a double-take.

Squirming

It's a scene that, in common with much of the film, plays like a cross between The Good Place and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In common with those shows, The Square successfully converts moral quandaries into squirming comic entertainment.

“I think I related to Christian a lot myself,” says Östlund. “I have a privileged position that many would think of as a powerful position. Christian believes in the idea of the square. I believe in these values too. But I want to challenge myself. And at the same time, I want to challenge the audience and the main characters with dilemmas. I want to put them in situations that are hard to handle but easy to relate to. I want to reflect situations back to the audience that ask them: ‘What would I do if I were in this situation?’.”

The Square pivots around a seemingly innocuous art exhibit and has a good deal of fun skewering the world of conceptual art along the way. (One $5,000-a-plate fundraising dinner allows for diners to be terrorised by Terry Notary's shirtless ape imitator).

It’s a real exhibit. In 2014, Östlund and producer Kalle Boman entered a similarly-themed installation into the Vandalorum Museum in Värnamo. In their artists’ statement, they wrote: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Within a year, two cities in Norway had built squares of their own.

“It has become a movement,” says the filmmaker. “People use it as a meeting point. Couples get engaged in it. Handicapped people have gathered there to protest their benefit being taken away from them.”

The movie takes the concept even further. Christian is a prissy, well-presented museum director whose entire life is thrown off-kilter when he becomes the victim of an elaborate con in which his phone and wallet are snatched.

Using GPS, he traces the culprit to an apartment building in a less salubrious neighbourhood and leaflets the entire block seeking the culprit.

Used condom

It gets complicated, as does everything else in Christian's life: the altruistic project he's overseeing is promoted using a ghastly, decidedly unethical YouTube video, a romantic encounter with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) descends into an embarrassing post-coital tug-of-war over a used condom, and Christian's scheme to retrieve his stolen phone requires increasingly awkward encounters with various homeless people.

“There is a larger issue of trust in the common project,” says Östlund. “Why don’t we raise the tax rate 0.01 percent for the richest so that the beggars are no longer beggars? Why is it up to the individual to give money? We can’t change their lifestyle with that kind of ideal. We have brought down these questions to an individual level. Civilisation is built on agreements between human beings. Roads have pedestrian crossings, for example. I think the film is exploring social contracts in many different ways.”

As soon as someone has done anything to someone else the media is intent on making a conflict that is either right or wrong

Having made an anti-Nato video with his Communist mother in 2015, Östlund was surprised that some of the most hostile sentiment to The Square, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2017, came from left-wing outlets. The son of a 73-year-old Communist mother was particularly bemused to read a scathing review of The Square in Libération, the publication founded by 1968 figureheads Jean-Paul Sartre and Serge July.

“They called the film right-wing and very conservative,” says Östlund. “For me that is interesting because they are reading the images from a sentimental place. They want a sentimental portrait of poor people. They want more solidarity between poor people. They want poor people to be a community. It’s almost as if certain left-wing people have forgotten about Marx. They have a very upper-middle class way of thinking about poor people. That they have a community and true values. That’s bullshit! Poor people are living in a tragedy. And their awful circumstances can create bad behaviours. I worry sometimes that some left-wing people misunderstand Marx.”

Civic responsibility looms large in the work of Ruben Östlund. Having honed his skills making skiing documentaries, the director came to international prominence with his sophomore feature Play (2011). That heart-pounding exploration of bystander effect was inspired by a spate of headline-making child-on-child bullying between 2006 and 2008, and by Östlund's father's recollection of roaming around the family's hometown of Gothenburg with a label around his neck containing his name and address.

Avalanche

Force Majeure, the director's caustic 2014 psychodrama about a model Swedish family torn apart after the father tries to save his phone – leaving his wife and family behind – when an avalanche hits during a luxury skiing holiday, offers a brilliant comedic dissection of masculinity and familial obligation.

The complex ethical dilemmas he creates have roots in his socialist upbringing, says the film-maker.

"It's an interesting thing. We, as kids, were very politically engaged and our mother still is. She's very active in the Communist Party. Conversations about politics and ethics have been going on in my own home for as long as I can remember. If I look at what I learned from home, the one thing really useful was the analysis of Marx and his theories. That society comes from our position in an economical hierarchy. And that how we behave is determined by where we are according to the concept of production.

“My films are also connected to sociology because sociology dares to look at us when we fail. It highlights the context of a behaviour. That is an approach missing out on so often today. As soon as someone has done anything to someone else the media is intent on making a conflict that is either right or wrong. In order to get attention to the ads, there is a lack of feeling in news media. Instead of trying to understand conflict, we’re trying to increase conflict. I want to look at Christian the same way I would look at myself – not as a hero but as a human.”

In this spirit, for all his humorous provocations, Östlund refuses to kill any of the characters in his films.

"We human beings are imitating creatures," says the film-maker. "We are more imitating than we are rational or sensible. So if we are producing a lot of images of young men running around with guns then more young men will run around with guns. Not all of us. But if you don't have any other options of who you see on screen growing up then those images in the movies will make an impact. For example, Roberto Saviano, who wrote Gomorrah, talks about how the young gangsters started to hold the gun sideways after seeing Tarantino's films. The consequences were absurd, because it was so much harder for them to hit each other and the shoot-ups became more bloody. I have no experience of violence. So why would I put it in my films – for cheap entertainment or drama?"

The Square opens March 16th

Film versus art

The Rebel (1961)
Tony Hancock moves to Paris where he hopes his awful amateur art will be better appreciated. It's not.

Manhattan (1979)
Diane Keaton praises a minimalist steel sculpture at the MoMA for its "marvellous kind of negative capability", then dismisses everything else as "bullshit."

A Perfect Murder (1998)
Gwyneth Paltrow thinks that dashing artist Viggo Mortensen is a better bet than her older, hedge fund-managing husband, Michael Douglas. Nope.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Between making "strongly vaginal" art, Julianne Moore's incomparable Maude Lebowski womansplains coitus to Jeff Bridges' Dude: "It's a male myth about feminists that we hate sex; it can be a natural, zesty enterprise."