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‘The Social Contracts Have Changed’: Ruben Östlund Talks About His Palme d’Or Winner “The Square”

Even before his film The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, Swedish director Ruben Östlund was one of the world’s most intriguing filmmakers, celebrated for his playful looks at the contradictions of human behavior — how our ideals conflict with our actual real-life actions. (His 2014 film, Force Majeure, about the fallout from a husband’s selfish actions during an avalanche at a ski resort, was a critical hit here in the U.S.) But The Square, about the goings-on around a contemporary art exhibit (called “The Square”) designed to create a shared safe space of equality and decency, is on another level entirely — an ambitious, expansive work that looks at our ideals and our hypocrisies from a humanistic point of view. I recently had the chance to talk to Östlund about the origins of his film, his unique approach to directing, and whether he thinks the values of “The Square” can truly be applied to real life.

As I understand it, “The Square” itself was a real artwork that you created?

It was something that started as an idea in 2008 because I was making a film called Play about a group of young boys robbing other young boys, inspired by events that took place in Gothenburg [Sweden]. I read through the court files, and you could tell that it was very, very seldom that any adult was interacting with the robbers. And it was very seldom also that any of the kids were asking for help. The robberies took place in a mall, where there were a lot of adults around. So, the bystander effect was really, really strong.

I talked to my father about this, and then he told me a story that is also told in The Square — the one that Christian [the film’s protagonist, played by Claes Bang] is telling his daughters. My father was brought up in the Fifties in Stockholm, and when he was six years old his parents put a tag around his neck with the address to their apartment, and then they sent him out into the center of Stockholm to play all alone. Back in the Fifties you looked at another adult as someone that would help your children, and today, we see that other adult almost as someone who is a threat to your children. So, the social contracts have changed. It was in this context that a friend of mine and I came up with the idea that we should create a symbolic place where we remind ourselves of the possibility of taking responsibility, and also of showing trust to other people. A symbolic place that should change the social contract, basically.

The film seems to interrogate the idea behind “The Square” as well. The ideals of the art project are noble, but they’re also quite vague.

When we were presenting that idea, we were meeting that kind of reaction. People thought it was utopian and weird, and that it wouldn’t be possible. But, personally, I think it’s comparable with a pedestrian crossing. We have a couple of lines in the street where we have an understanding that drivers should be careful when there are pedestrians. It’s kind of a beautiful invention. I was looking at “The Square” in the same way. Of course you can create a new social contract. And even if we don’t live up to these ideals, it doesn’t matter. Just the fact that we have a symbol that is trying to remind us about these ideals will create the change. “The Square” exhibit is in two cities in Sweden and two cities in Norway now. And in one city, Värnamo [Sweden], it really has become a bit of a movement.

The pedestrian crossing idea is interesting. But a pedestrian crossing…you know, you cross it. There’s a beginning and an end. You go from one point to another, and then you leave the pedestrian crossing. What would happen if someone just stood in the pedestrian crossing and waited?

[Laughs] Well, then there would be a problem with the traffic, of course. “The Square” has been used in a completely different way, though. For example, in Värnamo, there’s a group of functional handicapped people that have been protesting because they lost their benefits, so they went there and had a demonstration. The local newspaper came and took a picture and reported about it. And then when the terror event happened — the guy with the truck in Stockholm — they had a manifestation against violence. The same thing happened after a high school murder — they gathered there, people were lighting candles. This summer, something kind of beautiful happened. Someone put a flower in “The Square” with a little note saying, “Thank you to you who helped our son.” These are values that have existed for as long as we have had a civilization. There is nothing new about these values. Maybe this is a new way of trying to get attention to these values.

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I do find it interesting that Scandinavian countries seem to be so much more willing to try these kinds of progressive ideas. In the Seventies, for example, there was the commune movement. Why is that?

One thing was definitely the social democratic movement, and at the beginning of the twentieth century, there was this movement that the working class should be educated, in order to make it possible for them to claim their rights. It’s called the folkhem in Swedish, building up the idea that people should be educated even though they’re working in jobs that maybe don’t need intellectual knowledge. This really changed the possibilities for the working class, and started something that became a very flat hierarchy in Sweden. The idea behind the flat hierarchy is good — that equality is something that we strive for together. I can compare that with the U.S., where if someone has made it, it’s like, “Wow, good luck, man. Fantastic. You made it by your own hands.” In Sweden, we look critically towards that: “Were you born into circumstances that made it easier for you to reach this position?” We are striving for a flat hierarchy. There are good things about that, but there are of course also bad things about it.

Also, we have a lot of trust in the state in Sweden. For an example, when we see a beggar on the street, we think, “Why doesn’t the state take care of this?” But I think also that we are becoming more and more individualistic. Our attitude is getting closer to people in the U.S. Suddenly, when we talk about beggars, we don’t talk about it on a society level anymore. That’s really bad. We don’t say, “Let’s raise the tax 0.01 percent and let the richest help pay for this.” Now it’s only, “If I give or if I don’t give as an individual…” You put the blame and the guilt on the individual instead of trying to deal with it together.

Do you think some of this might have to do with the changing racial or ethnic dynamic of a society, too? Scandinavian societies in the past were a lot more homogeneous. I think that as the people around us start to look less and less like us, we tend subconsciously to start to find them suspicious. I found it interesting in the film that the boy that confronts Christian is an immigrant. Christian thinks of himself as a very fair-minded person, and a very humanistic person, but the film interrogates his conception of himself.

Two things. First of all, the boy — we don’t know if he’s an immigrant or not. That’s a preconception about him. But likely he can be an immigrant, yeah. But the second thing is that when it comes to Christian, it was super-important to me that he was mirroring the audience. My goal with the film was that it should be presented in Cannes in competition, and I will have this tuxedo-dressed audience sitting there and watching, in the monkey exhibition scene, a tuxedo-dressed audience. They should be confronted with themselves.

I don’t look at Christian as more hypocritical than anyone else. I look at him as myself, because so often we put ourselves on the good side. Always, always, always. I want to create a sociological experiment where we can identify ourselves when we fail. Sociology has a forgiving and humanistic view on us humans, even when we fail. I wish that I could express that in my films, because even if I want to be harsh towards the audience and confront them, I want them to understand that the situation in itself is creating bad behavior. I think that all of us have the ability of reacting in the way that Christian does — even if we don’t want to.

Claes Bang in “The Square.”

That’s the genius of the film: We’re able to identify with him, and he remains a likable guy throughout. And by questioning his actions, we question our own — without ever losing that sense of identification. How exactly did you pull that off?

One thing that I do during shooting is…OK, I have the script, I have the idea about the scene, but when we are starting to try out the scene, it’s a huge step to take something that is a written paper product and make it work as a visual product. So, I tell everybody in the scene that they have to stay true to themselves as human beings. I ask them, “Is it possible for you to do what you are doing now?” And one of the actor’s tasks is to detect that and say, “No, it’s actually not possible for me to react the way it says in the script.” Aha, then we have to change the setup, so it becomes possible for that actor to do that. They should always identify with the situation as human beings, not as characters.

For example, Christian is the chief curator of the museum. It’s super-important that Claes, who plays Christian, knows exactly what strings are attached to him in that job. You have the donators. You have the state mission of running a museum. You have to represent art, et cetera, et cetera. You have to understand the forces working on you. Then you can identify with being in that position as a human being.

Sometimes I write things that I want the actors to do, but it doesn’t work on set, and then I have to rethink. I have to find another way to go where I want to go, because if I don’t manage to direct the scene in the way that is believable for me, then I have to change what I have written.

Can you give me an example of a time when you feel you failed?

When Elisabeth Moss is coming up to Claes in the museum and surprising him. I wanted Elisabeth Moss to grab Claes in his waist and scream, “What do you want from me?!” And I didn’t manage to do that in a believable way. It is there, but it’s not as obvious. I wanted it to be, “What do you want from me?” And he’s like, “What do I want? I don’t want anything. What do you want?” That was something that I had to cut out. Maybe it’s a small detail, but yeah, it happens constantly. Every day when I’m shooting, there’s something that feels just wrong, constructed. And I have to stay true to what I think is believable.

Elisabeth Moss in “The Square.”

From what you describe, your work seems very collaborative, almost improvisatory — and yet your style is very precise.

If I’m shooting one scene a day, at the beginning of the day I’m trying out the scene together with actors, and they are free to do different things. We have certain, how do you say, gates that they have to go through — where the scene starts and where it ends. And at the beginning, it takes a long time for them to go from the beginning to the end because they are finding it in an organic way. Then they also have the freedom to try out things, and take risks — things they wouldn’t be able to do if we only had five takes.

I do in general around forty takes. So I can say, “No, take away that,” “Keep that, that was beautiful, that was brilliant.” And then we start to sculpt the scene, and we do that until the end of the day. And then I say, “Now we have five takes left. Is everybody ready?” And then for those five takes, we repeat exactly that pattern, that structure that’s the skeleton that we have built during the day. These last five takes are very similar to each other. So my goal is only to use improvisation in order for the actors to find out how to deal with the scene, but within very specific limits. Then, at the end of the day, I really, really don’t want them to improvise at all. Then they are following that exact structure through the last five takes. And very often it’s one of these last five takes that I use — usually the second to last take.

How do you know that you have an actor who will be able to work in this method you have, which is not a standard approach to filmmaking?

When I’m trying out the scene with actors, I very often act with them. So when I was trying Claes, I had him do one of the scenes with Elisabeth Moss, but I played Elisabeth Moss’s character. So I could push him into a corner with the lines that were written: “You have been inside me,” and “How should we solve this?” Then, when I tried out Elisabeth, I did the opposite — I played Claes’s character, and she played Anne [her own character]. For me it’s a way of getting to know the scene, but also getting to know the acting intelligence of the actor. With Elisabeth, she really pushed me — so even though I had done that scene, say, fifty times with different actors, suddenly I didn’t know how to answer her. She was so skillful in pushing me into a corner.

Nobody wants to help Dominic West fend off Terry Notary.

Let’s talk a little bit about the scene at the gala with Terry Notary. I’m curious about how you shot it. But also: At what point did you come up with that scene? Was that an organic part of the screenwriting process? It’s such a remarkable moment, but it’s like its own little thing inside the movie — nobody mentions it afterward.

My first inspiration for the scene was an American punk rock artist, GG Allin. I watched two YouTube clips called “GG Allin in Boston Part 1” and “Part 2.” I have never seen anyone so anarchistic. It was like they’d let a wild animal onstage or close to the audience, and the audience was also relating to him as a wild animal — you couldn’t really predict what he would do. They were scared of him at the same time they were there to watch him. These were probably some of the most intense moments I have seen with moving images.

But then, I thought that this should be some kind of performance artist. I googled “actor imitating monkeys,” and I found this clip where Terry Notary was doing a demo with his arm extensions for Planet of the Apes. So I decided to make it someone imitating a monkey. And then I also wrote this voiceover — this announcement that comes out in the speaker before he enters the room. “Soon you will be confronted by a wild animal. As you all know, the hunting instinct is triggered by weakness.” That text is really highlighting what the bystander effect is. So, for me, the scene is very thematic, it’s connected to the film. It was a way to highlight the reason that we get paralyzed when we see something that we are scared of. We are thinking, “Don’t take me, don’t take me, take someone else. I don’t want to be the prey.” So, once again, I didn’t want to put guilt in this moment when we don’t take responsibility. I wanted to look at it from a behavioristic point of view, and try to create understanding.

One of the wonderful things about that scene is that it can be interpreted in so many different ways. When I watched the film a third time, recently, I realized it also resembles what happens with something like social media — which obviously is a theme in the film. The announcer says something like, “Try not to get noticed.” Somebody steps out of line or says one thing wrong, and they’re just completely consumed. And even if you want to defend the person, you step back and think, “I shouldn’t say anything, because then I’ll get attacked.” The bystander effect is very much at work on all levels of existence.

I actually wrote down a quote the other day when I was trying to describe this behavior I think is in the scene, and also that I see on social media: “The most uncivilized thing about our time is the collective rage against individuals that have been uncivilized.” I don’t know if it makes sense for you, but the most uncivilized thing today for me is that complete anger that comes like a rage, like a riot, towards individuals who have been uncivilized. And for me, the film is very much about this in some way. I understand the audience in that room because Terry Notary is so scary — or his character is so scary. But I wanted him to walk into a room and be like an uncivilized animal. And in the end this tuxedo-dressed audience have themselves become uncivilized. So, they are having a revenge on him in the same way that he has been behaving.

 

 

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You’ll Probably Argue More About “The Square” Than Any Other 2017 Movie

Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this past May, probably says more about the times we’re living in than any other film you’re likely to see this year. And yet the beauty of the movie is that everybody will have their own ideas about what, exactly, it is saying. It’s not a vague film, however. Östlund is specific and exacting as a writer and director, and within The Square’s empty spaces, we’re forced to confront our own values, and our own visions of ourselves.

That idea is, in fact, what The Square is literally about. In a contemporary art museum in Sweden, chief curator Christian (Claes Bang) prepares to host a conceptual art project called “The Square,” which is described as “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” One could look at this square — it’s an actual square, by the way, carved into the middle of the courtyard of a royal palace — and lament the fact that the world has gotten to a point where such values can only be practiced in a small, four-by-four meter space, and only as part of an art project. Or one can see in it an example of the kind of idealistic and utopian thinking that could potentially sink a society. (What the hell does “a sanctuary of trust and caring” even mean, exactly?)

The language describing the installation suggests that humanity’s natural state tends toward equilibrium and fairness — or that these can at least be achieved by a kind of quiet, willing consensus. When such thinking meets the real world, of course, chaos ensues, and through its somewhat loosely connected, often hilarious vignettes, Östlund’s film questions our understanding of honesty, trust, and fellowship. Be it through a bizarre argument in the wake of a sexual encounter about what to do with a used condom, a creatively calamitous plan to retrieve a stolen phone, or a craven approach to marketing “The Square” itself, the film’s scenes suggest that our notions of integrity and community might be a lot more fragile than we think.

To add an extra layer of symbolism, “The Square” has been placed in the exact spot where once stood the statue of a monarch, further positing a debate between democratic values and those of a more hierarchical society. In the opening scenes, we see the old sculpture being removed by a crane, but a cock-up results in the statue coming loose and toppling awkwardly — as if it were one of those monuments to dictators that are periodically torn down on television by cheering, angry protesters. Who ultimately is responsible for order? And who measures equality?

Through a variety of episodes in Christian’s life and work, we see the failure of the kind of utopian thinking “The Square” represents. Is that what we’re seeing, though? Or is it the fact that Christian, as the successful and powerful head of a major art museum, cannot himself handle anything that smacks of genuine equality? Early on, we watch him walking to work on the street, amid dozens of other people. A woman runs, screaming for help, toward a nearby man, a stranger. Christian gets pulled into helping the woman, as he and the other man block a random angry dude from attacking her. Afterward, Christian and the other protective man congratulate each other and delight in the adrenaline rush of a good deed of physical bravery; the woman, meanwhile, is nowhere to be seen. Would these two have been so keen to help if the woman hadn’t prompted them to? Later scenes echoing this moment suggest that the answer might be no. And the fact that Christian realizes that his phone and wallet have gone missing immediately following the incident might mean that his supposed heroism was ultimately for naught.

Christian thinks of himself as a decent, fair-minded person. But his vision of himself is, as with all of us, selective. When he’s feeling good, he gives money to beggars; when he’s concerned and distracted, he ignores them. He’s a nice, fair-minded progressive in theory, but when less powerful people that he’s wronged confront him, he gets a “Why me?” look on his face. That Claes Bang manages to keep this man reasonably charming, even as the film interrogates his privilege and his very nature, is certainly some sort of achievement.

The Square is a film of set pieces, but perhaps the most impressive involves a museum gala dinner that is interrupted by a man pretending to be an ape (played by Terry Notary, the American stuntman and motion capture coordinator), whose antics at first seem entertaining and eventually become terrifying. The scene reiterates some of the key questions at the heart of The Square: When left to its own devices, does humanity find equilibrium or does it disintegrate into aggressors and subjects? And just what does it take for us to come to others’ aid? Where do we draw the line between the individual and society? The Square has a remarkably clearheaded and streamlined way of asking these many questions, but the answers it provides are always tantalizingly unclear.

The Square
Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund
Magnolia Pictures
Opens October 27, IFC Center and Film Society of Lincoln Center

 

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Together in the Dark: The New York Film Festival Invites Us to Connect

You’re on your own. That’s what they want you to believe. If the past year or so has made anything clear — or at least clearer than usual — it is that the norms and social contracts that we once imagined constrained the darkest urges of the powerful were mere illusions. They can do pretty much whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want. And such seismic events exploding across the cultural landscape don’t just affect the work that must be done; they also color our perceptions of the work that has been done. To wit: As always, this year’s New York Film Festival presents an assortment of world premieres and festival standouts from Cannes, Sundance, and elsewhere. That means some of these movies were finished practically yesterday, while some were wrapped just about a year ago. And yet the impulse to tease out themes, to find some unifying theory behind it all, is as powerful as ever — perhaps even more so.

Last year, many of the works at NYFF seemed obsessed with the ideas of time and memory — historical, personal, and cinematic. A few months later, Cannes offered up a number of films focused on lost children — young souls cast adrift, looking for their place in the world. Some of those Cannes titles have now made it to New York, but looking over this lineup, I sense a new idea emerging, a related one: the concept of community, of finding your people, the radical notion that maybe, despite what the assholes say, we’re not each alone.

The most vivid example can be found in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, the fest’s Centerpiece gala this year. Based on Brian Selznick’s acclaimed novel, it follows two deaf children in different years — one in 1927, the other in 1977 — as both travel to New York City in search of their roots and find themselves at the American Museum of Natural History. The film jumps styles — not just in Haynes’s camerawork and editing, which hop between silent-era expressionism and handheld Seventies grit, but also in Carter Burwell’s city symphony–like score, which seems to borrow from the whole history of twentieth-century music. Like its characters, the movie feels like it’s constantly searching — for an emotional resolution, for answers to its narrative mysteries, for a style to call its own. (It even borrows from Haynes’s previous work, including a doll sequence that recalls his epochal underground sensation Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.) By the end, I felt like I was watching not just a coming-of-age tale based on a children’s book, but an intimate, staggering apologia for the director’s whole eclectic career.

Similarly, in Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a trio of young kids living in a cheap motel complex in Orlando find one another when the grown-ups around them — burdened by the oppression of dead-end lives — leave them to their own devices. With previous titles like TangerineStarlet, and Take Out, Baker has built his career around shoestring projects that immerse us in small subcultures. Here, he may have found his ideal subject. These kids hover between a natural innocence and a disturbingly adult attitude toward the world, as they sow ceaseless chaos around them. Through their actions, Baker shows us the power of childhood as both a creative and a destructive force. As in Wonderstruck, the characters’ lack of equilibrium informs the style of the picture, which is less a narrative than a series of loosely collected incidents — some funny, some creepy, some heartbreaking. One pointedly dreamlike episode right at the end shows us both the wonder that these children, living in the shadow of Disney’s Magic Kingdom, have missed out on, as well as the sense of togetherness they’ve achieved on their own.

“The Florida Project”

Chloé Zhao’s mesmerizing drama The Rider portrays a different kind of belonging. Zhao shot her film among real Sioux cowboys in South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and her protagonist, a young star on the rodeo circuit (real-life rodeo cowboy Brady Jandreau, playing a variation on himself), is grappling with the aftermath of a career- and nearly life-ending fall. His health precarious, this young man can’t come to terms with the fact that he might never ride again. Through ethereal imagery, often shot at magic hour, Zhao makes it clear that Brady faces more than the loss of a career or a hobby; this is an existential event, completely undoing his very sense of self.

But what’s maybe most remarkable is Zhao’s portrayal of the people around Brady, many also essentially playing themselves — including his hard-ass dad, his autistic sister, and his best friend, Lane Scott, a rider whose own injuries have left him mostly immobile and unable to speak. Once again, a sense of togetherness shines through, but this time we realize that the universe of The Rider — one of poverty, love, anger, regret, and an uncommon connection to the land and the animals upon it — is, also, slowly dying.

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In many of these films, communities just kind of happen: Kids find each other, families come together, and shared interests and worries yoke disparate individuals to one another, creating new emotional ecosystems. The love stories, too, are built on communion, and sometimes they reach beyond the lovers themselves. In Luca Guadagnino’s rapturous Call Me by Your Name, archaeology grad student Armie Hammer and sensitive teen Timothée Chalamet fall for each other in the elegant Italian countryside. Contrary to what has come to be (sadly) expected from LGBT film stories, however, and despite the fact that it’s set in 1983, Guadagnino’s work doesn’t center on repressed feelings, or homophobia, or even secrecy. The two find their feelings hard to hide, and as their situation comes to the attention of their friends and family, they discover a kind of acceptance, even something approaching solidarity. Writing admiringly about the film in the Voice recently, Alex Frank noted that it “takes place in its own isolated fantasia, a fabulous Italian utopia filled with peach trees, red wine, and fish so big that it takes two hands to carry them into the kitchen.” Maybe it’s a dream, but sometimes dreams can help us build new worlds.

So can nightmares. Robin Campillo’s gripping drama BPM (Beats per Minute) offers another perspective on being gay in the 1980s, thrusting us into the inner workings of the Paris branch of ACT UP at the height of the AIDS crisis. We see the weekly meetings, the attempts at direct action, the infighting over strategy and tactics, plus various interpersonal dramas. The story eventually settles on one relationship, between newcomer Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and vocal, lively activist Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart). The former’s awakening — going from novice to fully engaged activist, and from shy, hunky wallflower to lover and caretaker — is a poignant reminder of how, in the darkest of times, finding one’s tribe and sense of purpose can make all the difference.

But what if your tribe is toxic? That’s the anger that animates Travis Wilkerson’s incredible personal documentary Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?, in which the filmmaker examines a true-life tragedy: the time his great-grandfather shot and killed a black man and got away with it. Through home movies, documentary footage, photographs, interviews, narration, and text, Wilkerson presents his journey: He attempts to learn more about the shooting, which happened in a small Alabama town in 1946, but finds almost no information. Even more disturbingly, he finds very little record of his great-grandfather’s victim, a man named Bill Spann — not even a grave. The film thus becomes a meditation on family and belonging, but from a disturbing perspective: Wilkerson has a lifetime of memories and records from his own family — movies, pictures, interviews, living members — but it’s as if Bill Spann and his bloodline have been wiped off the face of the earth. The director finds no solutions, offering just an unresolved, unforgettable look at a land haunted by horror, hate, and slaughter.

Back at Sundance, I found some intriguing echoes between Wilkerson’s film — at the time partly a performance piece that the director presented live — and Dee Rees’s Mudbound, an adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel about two families — one white, one black — working the same land in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s. Mudbound, too, explores the pressures of class and race on its characters, but it goes further, showing how evil and extremism can creep into the beliefs even of those who think of themselves as enlightened and good. The movies will, I suspect, have differing popular fates. Wilkerson’s work is firmly in the essay-film tradition, and as such will get limited exposure. Rees’s was picked up by Netflix and is gearing up for an awards season run. Still, I’m glad we’ll likely be hearing more about Mudbound in the months to come. It’s exceptional.

Even the best-intentioned communities can fail. Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, follows the chief curator (Claes Bang) of a contemporary art museum in Sweden as he oversees the installation of a conceptual project that envisions a square in the courtyard of the museum that will serve as “a sanctuary of trust and caring,” one where “we all share equal rights and obligations.” The film asks the central question: Can altruism, equality, and fairness be achieved by unforced, democratic consensus? (Not for nothing is the square placed exactly where the statue of a monarch once stood.) Then it complicates its inquiry by giving us a variety of scenarios, some gut-bustingly hilarious, that demonstrate just how petty, manipulative, weak, and cruel humans can be.

Östlund has an uncanny understanding of group behavior and how it can shift suddenly. The Square’s most striking set piece involves a museum gala that is interrupted by a man pretending to be an ape. His “performance” evolves from a series of impressive and comical physical feats to displays of outright aggression and, finally, his brutal, single-handed subjugation of the room. The refined crowd regards him first with acclaim, then with bemusement, panic, and eventually abject terror. It’s as insane, unlikely, and surreal a scene as you’ll ever see in a theater. And then afterward, you’ll go home, turn on the news, and realize that you’re living right in the middle of it.

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Ostlund’s First-Rate Force Majeure Dissects the Act of Manliness

Ruben Östlund makes films the way sociologists devise thought experiments: by posing a hypothesis and thinking fully through its consequences. The Swedish director’s previous feature, 2011’s Play, follows a group of black teenagers in Gothenburg as they blithely coerce a trio of affluent white children to hand over their valuables. Involuntary, from 2009, is an anthology film about the lunacy of etiquette: In one segment, the host of a middle-class party badly injures himself after mishandling celebratory fireworks, but opts to carry on entertaining rather than retreat to the hospital and spoil anyone’s fun. In another, a man touched inappropriately by a friend while on holiday prefers to ignore the violation and not to make a fuss. Force Majeure represents what is perhaps Östlund’s most sophisticated thought experiment yet, at once provocative and wise. It is a penetrating study of that most ludicrous of social pretenses — masculinity, toxic and ubiquitous.

Force Majeure takes as its subject (and satirical target) a comfortably moneyed Swedish family — Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), and a cherubic pair of fair-haired children — vacationing at a posh ski resort in the French Alps. One afternoon, dining merrily atop a mountain restaurant’s patio, the family hears the distant crack of explosives, which resorts like these detonate routinely, Tomas assures everyone, in order to trigger controlled avalanches. But as an imposing gust of snow-smoke charges toward the terrace, that casual awe curdles into alarm, even terror.

It all happens in an instant. Ebba grabs hold of the kids. The kids wail for dad. And Tomas, reliable patriarch, sees the avalanche rise upon him and…runs away. Moments later, as the dust begins to settle, it becomes obvious that the supposed
avalanche was in fact perfectly harmless. The diners saunter back to their tables, brushing themselves off, giggling with embarrassment. And Tomas does all he feels he can do: He returns to his family and proceeds as though nothing happened.

This sequence spans only a minute or two, but it has, as you might expect, seismic consequences — soon exacerbated when Tomas, shame gnawing at him, maintains that he didn’t run away at all. Now, Tomas, plainly, is a fool — a feeble, blubbering milquetoast and, above all else, a coward. But Östlund’s objective is not merely to castigate a weak-willed man for failing to protect his family. Instead, Force Majeure interrogates the gendered expectations that define our social order. All of Östlund’s films are founded on the same question: How would you react? As an experience in empathy, Force Majeure is particularly taxing. It invites us to ask how we, or perhaps how our loved ones, would behave given these circumstances, and we may not like the answers. (It would hardly be surprising if the film’s implicit line of questioning managed to sabotage a few otherwise healthy relationships.) Östlund understands that so much of how we relate to one another is a charade, our roles collectively imposed — and he understands, too, that all it takes is an avalanche for all that order to come crashing down around us.