Posts Tagged ‘Ruben Ostlund’

It was suggested that I come up with some kind of contribution on the topic of ‘public art’ for a forthcoming themed issue of the webzine I contribute to. Once I’d found out what that meant and done some googling, it turned out that there are a few films on this subject, mostly documentaries, but for the most part access to them is restricted, either by geography or a paywall. Maybe this is the future of cinema right here: if, as people are seriously suggesting, physical cinemas will no longer be financially viable in the post-pandemic world, then everything is going to depend on where you live and which streaming services you can afford to subscribe to. At which point I think I will simply just throw in the towel and just stick to watching moronic game shows and TV series from fifty years ago.

Thankfully, that awful day is still a few months away, and in the meantime there are still a few relatively free streamers available: mostly those tied to TV networks, which just means you have to endure them stopping the film now and then while they try to sell you things you can’t really afford any more and never needed in the first place. One of them turned out to be showing The Square, directed by Ruben Ostlund (O with two dots over it), an artist whose career has had some ups and downs: The Square won the top prize at Cannes, but on the other hand his previous film, Force Majeure, suffered the indignity of an American remake starring Will Ferrell. So it goes sometimes.

The Square takes place in and around a Stockholm art museum, curated by the suave and thoughtful Christian (Claes Bang). He is something of a public figure around town, and the museum is hosting a number of prestigious shows and installations, including a man pretending to be an ape (Terry Notary) and the ground-breaking ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’, which is pretty much what it sounds like.

All is well in Christian’s world until he sees a young woman begging for help while he is on the way to work one morning: naturally, his decent and humane instincts lead to him being dragged into a scene with her, her violent ex, and another stranger. Everything seems to resolve itself quite peacefully, but then he is horrified to discover it was all a set up and he has been mugged.

This preys rather on Christian’s mind, as you might expect, and somewhat takes his mind off preparations for a new installation called ‘The Square’, which apparently symbolises compassion and shared humanity. Then, one of his staff is able to trace the location of the stolen phone to a nearby tower block, and rather than face a confrontation, Christian decides to send a letter demanding the return of his property to every single flat.

You know this is not going to end well, but exactly how it all goes wrong is not quite so easy to guess. The general thesis of the film is much easier to discern, though, as it’s not presented with particular subtlety: one scene shows a charity worker in a busy street asking the passers-by to ‘Save a human life’, the irony being that she herself seems completely oblivious to the plight of the various homeless people around her. Most of the film is a series of extended riffs on the same idea: characters make a big deal about how decent, humane, refined and liberal they are, but then their actual behaviour suggests they are rather more petty and self-serving.

There are also a number of pretty good gags about the absurdity of the contemporary art and culture world: at one point part of one of the piles of gravel is accidentally hoovered up, forcing Christian to get some fresh gravel and recreate the pile using old photos as a model. (The Duchampian question of what this says about the nature of art is left implicit.) The hip young social media gurus the gallery hires to drum up publicity for The Square come up with a video which is ridiculously offensive and inappropriate, but still somehow entirely credible.

Elsewhere the film perhaps acts as a reminder that satire and comedy are not always the same thing. In one of the film’s big set pieces (and the one depicted in most of the publicity), the artist pretending to be an ape runs amok at a dinner, which is initially greeted with indulgent laughter from the attendees, but eventually results in an angry mob delivering a beating. It’s oddly uncomfortable and unsettling to watch, as are the various scenes where Christian is given a hard time by a young boy who is suffering as a result of his non-confrontational approach to dealing with the muggers.

In the end, if this is a comedy, then it is a comedy of manners and social awkwardness, although one taking place in a milieu that was unfamiliar to me, at least: there’s a scene in which Christian and Anne (Elizabeth Moss), a journalist he hooks up with, have a protracted row over who should be allowed to dispose of the used contraceptive. Another depicts a visiting artist (Dominic West) attempting to give an interview in front of an audience which contains a man with Tourette’s syndrome: it’s all very low-key and naturalistic, but still somehow squirm-inducing. (Apparently this is one of several sequences in the film based on real events; another touch of verisimilitude which led to problems is that The Square is ascribed to real-life artist Lola Arias – there was a dispute over whether she actually gave her permission to be used.)

You know, reading all this back I’m making The Square sound like a solid, thoughtful, intelligent film, a worthy Palm D’Or winner. Maybe it is – Bang’s performance is a fine one (he has since become rather better known in the UK after appearing in the BBC’s Dracula), and it is clearly not one of those films which has just been slapped together. However, as with Force Majeure, I found a lot of it to be so understated, deadpan and slow that I wasn’t sure what to make of it. The problem is compounded here by the fact The Square is nearly two and a half hours long. I’m not saying it sprawls, but I did find it very hard work and in the end watched it, effectively, as a mini-series of three episodes, which isn’t something I normally consider doing. After all that, would I recommend it? I’m not sure. It almost seems more interested in its own austere and careful style than in actually making its points effectively and entertainingly. It actually comes across as slightly pretentious, which for a film aspiring to satirise pretentiousness is not a good look. It’s okay, but I would be wary of giving a more enthusiastic endorsement.

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With androids and definitely-not-mutants mounting an occupation in force of every major cinema in the country, it’s once again a fruitful time for counter-programmers as they seek to appeal to those who don’t necessarily like their cinema quite so Marvel-lous. One of the main beneficiaries, this time around, seems to be Ruben Ostlund (two dots over the O) and his film Force Majeure.


Now, there are alien worlds, then there are alien worlds, and then there are Swedish family winter sports holidays – and this is the milieu into which the director plunges. (Yes, the spellchecker is on red alert.) This is the story of Tomas (Johannes Bar Kuhnke) and Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli), a successful couple with a couple of young children. As the film opens, they have just started a week-long skiing holiday at a luxurious resort and are posing for photographs there. The image is that of a perfect, happy, traditional family – but how much is artifice and how much reality?

Things are put to the test soon enough, when the family are confronted with the terrifying spectacle of an oncoming avalanche. Faced with a split-second decision, Tomas flees, leaving Ebba clinging to their children. It turns out to be a controlled avalanche manufactured by the resort for safety reasons, and Tomas returns a few seconds later, slightly shame-faced. They continue with the holiday as before – or so it seems.

The children are oddly wilful and unsettled. Tomas senses an atmosphere between him and Ebba, but she denies anything is wrong. However, at dinner with friends that night she insists on bringing up the subject of the avalanche, and refuses to accept Tomas’ version of events (in which, not surprisingly, his running away does not feature).

Tomas’ moment of cowardice – or ruthless self-preservation – has clearly had a severe effect on them and their marriage, and one that threatens to (ahem) snowball out of control as the holiday goes on. Can they find a way to get past it and come to terms with their shaken images of themselves and each other?

Well, it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that nobody dies in Force Majeure (or even really comes close), and yet this is a more disturbing film, with a more pronounced sense of angst and trauma in it, than many a big-budget film with a three-figure bodycount. The director’s approach is meticulously low-key and naturalistic, and all the interior scenes take place in impeccably stylish and modern hotel rooms, but a deep sense of anxiety and uneasiness resonates in every scene following the key moment with the avalanche – which, incidentally, is done in a single take, something which manages to be both technically impressive and narratively significant. There’s no chance of a Rashomon-style choice of recollections here, as Tomas feebly attempts to suggest, for the audience has already seen him bolting from danger and abandoning his loved ones.

It doesn’t sound like much of a premise for a film, but the script and performances make it urgent and compelling, and give it a surprisingly universal theme. Our perception of masculinity, and our expectations of men are what are fundamentally under examination in this film. At one point the crisis seems to be threatening to go viral, as one of Tomas’ friends, attempting to mediate between the couple, is casually told by his girlfriend that she could imagine him running away if he were in Tomas’ place, leading to a further outbreak of hostilities in this relationship, too.

The film is fairly relentlessly scathing about men in general, presenting them as vain, arrogant, and largely dependent upon the admiration of women for their sense of self-worth. (There’s a grimly funny scene where Tomas appears to recover his composure, but only after a drunk young woman unintentionally flatters him in one of the hotel bars.) I thought for a while that the film was perhaps pushing this angle a bit too far and coming across as a touch Rev Fem, but the climax appears to redress this a bit: like much of the film, this is extremely understated and presents the viewer with no easy answers, though.

That the film works as well as it does is largely down to the carefully controlled, almost forensic direction, and two extremely strong and subtle performances from the lead actors: both are confronted by a truth about either themself or their relationship that was previously unimaginable, and they simply can’t process it, let alone move on with their lives. They carry the film between them, though there is a nice supporting turn from Kristofer Hivju (whom I understand plays Timbo Giantbasher in Musical Chairs, or something), and also a brief appearance by Brady Corbet, who started his career playing Alan Tracy in Jonathan Frakes’ reviled Thunderbirds movie and has gone on to have an interestingly eclectic career in the intervening years.

This is a (largely) foreign language, art-housey kind of film that was coming to the end of its theatrical run even when I saw it, and it’s such an intense, understated, almost existential drama that I would hesitate to recommend it without careful thought, even though I was very impressed by it. If nothing else, it proves that no-one really does despair like Scandinavians. Those wacky Swedes! Still, a classy movie, in its way.


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