Ruben Östlund’s ‘THE SQUARE’ is a well-rounded exercise in discomfort


Preston Barta // Features Editor

THE SQUARE is one of those films that throws content at its audience and it’s up to the viewer for how they brew the stew.

The plot concerns a Swedish art museum director named Christian (a very good Claes Bang), whose life becomes a comedy of errors as he prepares for his next great exhibit. Along the way, he forms new relationships (such as Elisabeth Moss’ journalist character) and has some bizarre encounters — including an artistic demonstration where a man (Terry Notary) jumps up on a dinner party table while methodically acting like a primate. (It’s a spectacular 10-minute long sequence with no smoke and mirrors.)

Director Ruben Östlund on the set of ‘THE SQUARE.’ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund is no stranger to making you feel anxious and uncomfortable. The feelings are not disturbing, but they are comparable to the idea of watching a friend about to make an embarrassing mistake. Östlund embraced this technique in his 2014 film FORCE MAJEURE (a film about a father who selfishly abandons his family for his own safety during an avalanche), but he pushes these moments of human error further in THE SQUARE.

“What I am interested in exploring is awkward moments. Awkward moments are almost like watching violence in cinema,” Östlund said in a recent phone call. “When we are watching violence on screen, we get an adrenaline rush, but don’t have to participate. It’s the same with awkward moments, because we are social animals and super sensitive when a social contract is broken. We are very scared of these moments.”

In an early scene, we see Christian walking to his work in the city street. All of a sudden a woman cries out for help and runs toward Christian and another nearby bystander, claiming that a man is coming for her. Without a moment to figure out what the commotion is about, the two strangers see a man darting after them and instinctively decide to come to the woman’s aid. They manage to keep him off and calm the situation all before the woman and man flee the scene. It’s a seemingly insignificant moment, but it delves into human behavior in a profound sense.

“I constantly look for scenes where I can push myself into a corner and find dilemmas where there are two different roads for a character can to go down. None of the paths will be easy, and all will have consequences,” Östlund said.

Östlund discussed his filmmaking process and how it is important for him to allow scenes to transform into visual expressions. While a scene may read well and cause tension on paper, Östlund said it has to function on screen and be believable.

“You have to be open as a filmmaker because things must change. Ask yourself and the talent involved questions like, ‘Do you believe what’s going on?’ If we don’t, then we change the setup to be more comfortable. It’s not important to understand the content per se, but we must establish a fluid rhythm.”

Elisabeth Moss in the opening scene of ‘THE SQUARE.’ Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

That rhythm is the key ingredient to THE SQUARE’s success as an unshakeable exercise in tension. When it comes down to it, there’s no defined narrative arc in the mainstream sense. Östlund merely wants to drop you in a tangible, but also fantastical situation to see what you make of it.

“It’s a big mistake when filmmakers are concerned with the plot. The scenes we are presented to as an audience often contains information we need for a plot. I want to create a scene that you feel in your body and becomes an experience.”

Östlund mentioned that his greatest influence for the film was stumbling across a YouTube clip titled “Cab Driver on BBC.” In the clip, a cab driver is mistaken for an expert on the internet music business on live television. Instead of correcting the journalist, the cab driver begins to play the role of the expert, because he doesn’t want to create an awkward feeling on the broadcast program.

“That clip tells me more about human behavior than most feature films I have seen,” Östlund said.

There’s so much to unpack in Östlund’s remarkable film. I can see many audiences ignoring its overarching themes and being quick to dismiss it as pointless. Whether you relate to the material, you will undoubtedly be entertained by its eccentric nature and will discuss it long after it’s over.

THE SQUARE is playing in limited release. Check your local listings to find out where it’s playing near you. (Dallas: Angelika Film Center in Dallas and Plano.)

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.