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The beguiling new film that brutally satirises art world hypocrisy

Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” won the Palme d’Or, features the scene of the year, and makes fun of gallery life

“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries we all share equal rights and obligations.”

Ruben Östlund is what you might call a perfectionist. In 2017, his new film, The Square, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and yet he still wasn’t satisfied. The biting satire on the art world was supposed to hit UK cinemas in August last year, but the release was postponed so that Östlund could make further edits. This amounted to shaving off just two minutes from the running time.

Nevertheless, The Square, which comes out this week, is well worth the wait. It’s tempting to call it a feature-length episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm directed by Michael Haneke, except the themes and aesthetic are very much a culmination of Östlund’s past work and obsessions. Like Larry David, the Swedish filmmaker draws from real-life experiences, and the resultant comedy follows a prickly museum curator, Christian, played by Danish actor Claes Bang, as he bumbles his way through a gauntlet of increasingly awkward social situations.

When Christian seeks revenge against a phone thief, he tracks the GPS to a block of flats and slips threatening notes into letterboxes. It backfires spectacularly. At the same time, Christian is the public face of a Stockholm museum. His latest exhibition, also called The Square, riffs on the notion that society should learn to trust strangers. Basically, Christian is a professional hypocrite, which suits his job: he has to disguise the many ways that money and PR dictate the museum’s artistic output.

Östlund and Bang, both of whom I speak to in London, share strong opinions about modern art. Bang met various museum curators during his research, while Östlund visited exhibitions around the world.

“Contemporary museums are all the same,” Östlund complains. “There’s a neon sign on the wall and an object laying on the floor. They’re there because of the market value. Seriously, do they say much about where we are right now?” The director divides art into two categories: the meaningful kind made from the urge to express oneself, and the dross satirised in the film. “When Duchamp put the pissoir into a museum, it was provocation, but nowadays that provocation is gone. A lot of the art world now is about collecting expensive art pieces.”

“Contemporary museums are all the same...seriously, do they say much about where we are right now?” – Ruben Östlund

Bang agrees. “It’s a taboo in the art world,” the actor says. “You’re dependent on private money but a museum director will never say that out loud. In Denmark and Sweden, most museums are 100% government funded, but that’s only enough for rent and wages. If you need to acquire a new piece of art, you’re dependent on private money, and you can’t risk hanging something up on the wall that might mean losing all your sponsors.”

Funnily enough, the art installation featured within the film was a real concept Östlund brought to fruition in 2015. Several of them now exist around Europe. Östlund envisioned a small space, a square marked out on the floor, in which kindness was promoted and people looked out for one other. You could abandon your phone on the floor and walk away without fear of theft. Theoretically, every town could have its own square, and the rules would be obeyed like zebra crossings or standing on the right of escalators.

“When my father was six years old,” Östlund explains, “his parents put an address tag around his neck and sent him onto the streets of Stockholm to play. That was back in the 50s. Nowadays, we raise our children to believe other adults are a threat.”

At one point, Christian tells his assistant to “forget your Swedish heritage and all that politically correct crap”. So is The Square a particularly Scandinavian film? The answer, from Östlund, is an emphatic yes. He takes my notebook and draws a diagram to illustrate the contrasts between Sweden, Germany and the US. When I ask if this would scupper an American remake, he says it’d be “super-interesting” and that someone tried to redo his 2014 film, Force Majeure, with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss as the lead.

Of course, an American version of The Square could feature the same core cast. Bang, who switches between English and Danish in the film, stars alongside the likes of Dominic West as a wanky artist (not-so-secretly based on Julian Schnabel) and Elisabeth Moss as a neurotic journalist who tussles with Christian over a used condom.

In fact, Bang beat a few Hollywood figures for the role. “The audition process was eight hours altogether,” he recalls. “The first meeting was three hours, just me and Ruben. Then, before the third session, Ruben went to London to meet these specific actors.” Bang doesn’t reveal any identities, and he’s too polite to object when I starting guessing names like Benedict Cumberbatch. “Yeah, someone like that who’d raise much more money than I could. I was dead sure I wouldn’t get it, but he kept saying, over and over again, that I was the best fit.”

For the shoot, Bang was present for 72 out of the 75 days, and each scene – many are single takes lasting several minutes – would often be attempted around 70 times. “Ruben wants you to be exhausted,” Bang explains. “Ruben says after 25 takes, you stop thinking like an actor and you’re just there.” Not that Bang received much encouragement during the process. Feedback included: “No more of this fucking TV acting.”

“Feedback included: ‘No more of this fucking TV acting’”

Bang adds, “I was like, ‘My God, has he got the wrong actor?’ Until I realised Ruben is like that with everyone. Elisabeth Moss was fucking brilliant. She came in for the last 10 days of shooting and revitalised everything. But there was a point where I wasn’t sure I would make it to the end, because it was so tough. To go in every day and have this feeling that it’s not there…”

One reason Östlund favours these fixed shots is to highlight our animalistic qualities. “I think of human beings as a herd animal,” Östlund says. “We like to think we’re above it all, but we’re animals with instincts and needs. That’s why I shoot like a nature filmmaker. ‘What is the human doing now? How interesting!’”

To psych themselves up, Christian and his assistant blast Justice on the car speakers. It’s a brilliant song choice, I tell Östlund. Justice sound ridiculous when you’re alone at home, but they transform into fist-pumping anthems in the right context. He smiles. “Yes, exactly! I love Justice. It’s music that brings people together, and it gives Christian a boost when he’s getting revenge.”

That said, The Square demonstrates how modern art can do the opposite. Though the exhibition aims to unite society, the museum is a refurnishing of Stockholm Palace and comes across as very white and middle-class. There’s also a certain irony that The Square, a film about art getting seduced by money and glamour, would win the Palme d’Or.

Östlund laughs. “The sequence with Terry Notary was made with the goal of having our premiere at Cannes.” The scene unfolds on the exhibition’s launch night at a restaurant. The guests, wearing tuxedos and expensive dresses, watch as Notary, sweaty and topless, leaps around the room, imitating an ape. The performance artist then turns violent in front of his audience. It’s the bystander effect. Who will dare intervene? “Everyone at Cannes was dressed like the people on screen,” Bang recalls. “You could really feel the unease in the room.”

When it comes to filmmaking influences, Östlund dismisses American movies as boring, and he instead praises YouTube. His favourite is “Cab Driver on the BBC”. “It’s beautiful. He’s trying to avoid losing face, and so he plays the role of an internet expert. It says so much about human beings that we’re role-playing creatures. That’s been my inspiration for the last 15 years.”

Viral videos are an obsession for Östlund. He uploaded a clip of himself crying when Force Majeure was snubbed by the Oscars, then followed it up last month with a sequel to celebrate The Square’s recognition from the Academy. Conversely, his new film takes aim at sensationalist PR campaigns. “The challenge here is to be able to cut through the media clutter,” a publicist announces in The Square. “Your competitors aren’t other museums, but natural disasters and terror threats.”

So the museum advertises itself with a young girl who explodes in the square. It’s crass, exploitative and wildly successful at drawing attention. Part of the inspiration, for Östlund, was how a photo of a drowning three-year-old on a beach could alter people’s minds about the refugee crisis.

“When we see a small child,” Östlund notes, “we feel the need to look after it. It’s in our DNA. A lot of things that become viral, like shame and death and sex, are connected with very basic things about being human.” Is that necessarily a bad thing? “It’s a good thing to raise awareness, but it’s scary. There were images of refugees running into the tunnel near Calais, and British papers said, ‘This has to stop now.’ Then a week later, the image of Aylan came, and the same papers were writing, “Where’s our humanity?” That’s populism. That’s playing on people’s fears instead of having a political standpoint.”

“A lot of things that become viral, like shame and death and sex, are connected with very basic things about being human” – Ruben Östlund

Bang, I detect, is less of a cynic, and he wants to be on record that he loves modern art. “I think the art scene is amazing,” he says. “I enjoy going to museums just to be in that space. The film is only satirising the part that takes itself too seriously. When she [Elisabeth Moss’s character] reads those lines to me at the beginning, that’s a real quote. It’s not something that Ruben made up. He found it on the internet. Someone wrote that for a museum, and nobody will ever be able to explain it.”

I ask Östlund if films share the same problems as modern art. He nods and explains the financial reasons why The Emoji Movie exists. (In short, the blame lies with opening weekend box office.) Not that Östlund makes those kinds of projects. He had meetings to potentially direct Passengers a while ago, but his pitch – Chris Pratt still wakes up and sleeps with Jennifer Lawrence; but he does so in the knowledge his wife and children are also on the spaceship – was rejected for its dark overtones. Likewise, his proposed US sitcom, You Know That Weekend You Were Away with the Kids?, is “on ice”. His focus, at the moment, is on a new film, Triangle of Sadness, which targets the fashion industry. The protagonist is a balding male model who rebrands himself with a celebrity girlfriend. “There’s something very fair about beauty,” he teases of the plot. “You can be born with beauty, even if you don’t have education or money.”

 Triangle of Sadness, Östlund promises, will continue on from The Square by asking uncomfortable questions about who we are as people. “You don’t want to look at yourself when you go to the cinema,” the director explains. “You don’t want to confront your own moral and ethical standpoint when you look at the screen. But that’s the only thing I’m interested in.”