The Swedish director of Force Majeure and The Square, starring Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, on the folly of screen violence and finding drama in the oddities of human behaviour
Ruben stlund is the rugged adventurer of Swedish film, the man who came down from the mountain to sun himself by the Med. I first meet the director on a posh restaurant terrace at the Cannes film festival. Hes easy to spot among the immaculate diners, perched at a corner table and clasping a mug of coffee as though to keep his hands warm. stlund is bearded and rumpled and reeks of the outdoors a child of nature come to gatecrash high society. He says he loves the Alps; he loves to ski. He spent most of his 20s shooting extreme sport videos. Then I got bored of resorts. Too many lift queues.
I think the ski slopes loss might be cinemas gain. Or possibly hes just swapped one extreme sport for another. stlunds latest film, The Square, crash-landed on the festival as a last-minute addition, still warm from the editing suite (and would later make off with the all-important Palme dOr). Its a lovely, freewheeling piece of work a comedy that starts out as a satire on modern art and then jumps the fence to embrace the whole world, riffing on themes of public space and personal responsibility. The films title refers to a utopian free zone that is marked out on the street outside a Stockholm museum. The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring, the accompanying brass plaque explains. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.
Before it became a film, The Square was actually a physical square. stlund and his producer Kalle Boman installed it as a social experiment at the Vandalorum Museum in Vrnamo, Sweden in 2014. On the opening night, drunken youths stole the plaque. Afterwards the square became a base for buskers, beggars and protesters. Office workers gathered to eat lunch on sunny days. Lovers proposed within its borders. In this way the installation took on a life of its own. We were no longer in control of the square, stlund says. How it is used is up to the people of the city. If they abuse it, it reveals something about them. If they treat it well, it says something interesting, too. All these ideas would seed and water his film.
Beyond the hotel terrace, music blares and cars honk. stlund slots a cigarette in his mouth but then cant find his lighter. He checks his breast pocket, he checks his trousers. He appeals to the diners at a neighbouring table. Finally the publicist scurries across with a replacement. She says this has happened before and will probably happen again. Im like his own personal Pez-dispenser.
The Square, as luck would have it, is loaded with such fleeting social transactions. People call out for assistance and are either obliged or ignored. Some gambits pay off and others bring disaster. The Danish actor Claes Bang gives a tremendous performance as Christian, chief curator at Stockholms Royal-X Museum a man by turns insecure and honourable, vain and generous. Christian wants to establish a utopian free-zone outside his institution. But he also wants to take revenge on a pickpocket who stole his wallet and phone. From here, the film sends him down all manner of rabbit-holes. He comes slip-sliding through posh gala dinners and across polished gallery floors, bumping up against brittle American journalist Anne (played by Elisabeth Moss), and preening visiting artist Julian (Dominic West). Christians job is on the line and his dignity in tatters. Im a semi-public figure, he wails at one point. Which in a sense we all are.
The thing is, stlund says, he has never regarded himself as a fiction film director. The plan was always to make documentaries. He fell into drama almost by accident and scored a breakout hit with 2014s avalanche saga Force Majeure, in which a middle-class dad abandons his family at the first whiff of danger and then compounds the crime by lying about it. Human behaviour is what fascinates him: how people respond to a crisis; how they rub against the wider environment. For better or worse, stlunds characters are defined by split-second decisions. Basically, he says, all my films are about people trying to avoid losing face.
The Square, for instance, contains a fabulous scene in which Dominic Wests artist is interviewed on stage at a theatre. Julian claims to be most fascinated by human responses to art and yet he is thrown off his stride by a man with Tourette syndrome, who periodically bellows expletives from the floor. Fuck off! the man explodes. Cocksucker! The rest of the audience dont know where to look.
stlund explains that this episode, too, was lifted from experience. I have a good friend whos a theatre director in Sweden, he says. And one night I was sitting in the audience watching the play when this guy starts clapping and then shushing himself. Clapping and shushing. But very loudly, you know, everybody could hear him. So were all sitting there and our attention is split. Whats more interesting? The play on the stage or the man in the seat? And every time the actors did a loud scene, the man would get more excited. So now the actors are terrified! Oh my God, Im coming to the scene where I have to raise my voice and thats only going to set him off. stlund bursts out laughing. It was probably the best play Ive ever seen in my life.
I tell him the theatre should have the man there every night. Well now, he says. Thats basically what they did. Because it turns out that this guy is very well known. The theatre staff like him. The ensemble knows that hes coming. Our friend is here. And thats a beautiful thing, a tolerant thing. stlund reaches for a second cigarette. The only difference now is that he wears these thick woollen gloves, he says. That way he doesnt make so much noise when he claps.