The Palme d’Or winner and his star discuss the motivations behind their film.
Ruben Östlund won the Palme d’Or for his latest film at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Square left me puzzled and somewhat frustrated following my screening last May (check our my review here), but one thing I’m fully on board with is the film’s climax. This scene, dominating the film’s promotional material, features a performance artist pushing the boundaries of high art. Featuring motion capture artist Terry Notary (whose work can be found in Avatar, the Planet of the Apes reboot series, and Kong: Skull Island among others) as a contorting monkey man. Notary saunters into a dinner of museum donors, bringing laughter before causing havoc. This sequence is just one of many that feature bizarre interpretations and boundaries of modern art. I sat down with Notary and Östlund for a chat regarding the film’s depiction of art and the sequence that will stick with viewers for weeks.
This film has quite a lot to say about the art world. In today’s cultural landscape, what does art mean to you?
Ruben Östlund: For me, what is art is something that makes me think about existence and society or myself in a new way. It raises a new question. That is definitely what art is to me. When an art piece or a movie or a play is suddenly making me look at life in a slightly different way, that is what art is for me. That is what artists are trying to do. We’re trying to raise questions about different kinds of things, trying to highlight things that are going on in contemporary times. When you look at the museums and the contemporary art museums, so many of them are just copying MOMA, like that has been the role model for all contemporary art museums. The white cube and you just put something into that white cube. Quite often it doesn’t provoke any new thoughts, and it doesn’t even have to be with the art pieces. That’s not the problem, it’s the way we exhibit the art pieces that is the problem. Which way should we put them in a context in which we actually see, “ah ha, this is what we are aiming for here.” I think the art world has a problem because it’s reproducing a certain kind of ritual over and over again. Often it’s quite silly. I guess that’s my take on the art world. It’s a little bit lost, and it’s very theoretical; almost corporate bullshit theoretical. We have to be able to criticize that because I’m part of it in some ways.
Can you talk about the origins of the art pieces in the film? I especially adored the piles of gravel that the janitors had to cautiously vacuum around, and of course The Square itself.
RO: The gravel – well I was talking to a friend and he said, “the only things you see in these museums are mirrors and piles of dirt.” I thought that was so true. That was the inspiration for that, his take on the art world. The Square is actually an art piece that I made with a friend of mine. I’m not sure that I want to talk about it as an art piece because then it becomes only theoretical. I look at it as they are talking about it in the film, as something that is as simple as a pedestrian crossing. It’s a humanistic traffic sign, something that should remind us of a certain kind of behavior, a humanistic behavior; that we take care of each other, that we show trust for one another, that we have a responsibility as human beings. This actually exists in four cities, two cities in Sweden and two cities in Norway. We have this permanent thing in a public space in the center of the city. The reason that the film takes place in an art museum is because I was invited with a friend of mine to have an exhibition about the idea of The Square.
Terry, is this the first time you’ve appeared as yourself, without motion capture digitization, in a film?
Terry Notary: Pretty much. It’s the first role like this.
RO: Definitely not the last, I’m 100% sure.
TN: It’s no different for me than doing performance capture. I think I’ve just become the guy that they think does that. So I just didn’t feel any different. I’m still me in a room with people as it is when I’m performing as any other character. I didn’t approach it any differently at all. I just think that people are recognizing this more because it’s me – you see my face. It’s was definitely an amazing experience doing this scene, because we knew we had to do something profound and we had to move the audience and we had to say something with no dialogue. The marks that Ruben wanted to hit were: win them over, scare the alpha male out of the room, and breed. It’s like the base things, become part of the pack, make a gang, and gang up on someone. Then turn around and become the alpha of the room and breed with the prettiest girl. That was basic.
RO: What was the word you used, breed? What does that mean?
TN: Make love. Have babies with. Anyways, we knew that we were going to keep it simple, but how we got there, we didn’t quite know. We kind of mapped something out and then we just let the moments happen and let them be fresh. When we found something that was working we kept it, and then we moved to the next thing. We would do it in big chunks, but we did so many takes.
RO: We worked three days on this single scene.
TN: By the end of it I was fully in it. Then I would go around and apologize to the people in the scene. “I’m so sorry, so sorry. Is your neck okay? Did I throw water on you?” Then I’d go back into it. So the rest of the actors kept it alive, they were always waiting for something new to happen. I had to surprise myself, I didn’t want to repeat any of the same actions.
Where did the idea for the scene come from?
RO: Many different things inspired that scene. One of them was a Russian performance artist called Oleg Kulik and he had a performance in a museum in Stockholm and he was playing a dog. I think there was a sign that said, ‘beware of dog”. When people didn’t respect that he actually bit them. It ended with him biting the chief curator’s daughter in the leg, so they had to call the police. That’s why the character’s name is Oleg. The voiceover is about trying to highlight that we are animals. If you show fear the animal will sense it and hunt you down. If we you remain perfectly still, you can hide in the herd and be safe knowing that someone else will be the prey. We have to remember that we human beings are animals. A lot of our behavior comes from our instincts and our needs. I wanted people to have to think about this at the same time as we think of ourselves as civilized creatures. The scene in itself came together when I was watching Terry’s performance on YouTube for Planet of the Apes. It was a little demo. His performance was so beautiful and powerful and fantastic. So it gave me the idea that the performance artist could imitate a monkey.
The Square is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It begins a nationwide expansion this Friday, which will continue throughout the fall.