A yuppie varnish coats Ruben Ostlund’s new movie, “The Square,” with not a blemish or imperfection on its many sleek spaces.
The same can’t be said of the people who inhabit them. Characters in Ostlund’s Swedish seriocomedy, set for its buzzy debut at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday night, struggle to act morally but are frequently tripped up by ego, prejudice and fear.
“I have a very positive view of human beings — one reason we’re successful is because when we see inequality, we’re provoked to do something about it,” the director said in an interview. “But we’re also herd animals. When we’re confronted with a threat, we tend not to move, hoping the threat takes someone else.”
Human response to inequity is among the many ethical subjects threading through Ostlund’s new Swedish- and English-language movie. As a result, his film poses cultural questions far bigger than one title in one Cannes competition. Can moral dilemmas be the stuff of modern cinema? And can a contemporary audience, sated with spectacle and the distance it provides, be turned complicit in characters’ bad decisions?
“I want to make movies that reflect situations back to the audience, that have them ask ‘what would I do if I were in them?’” said the director.
Ostlund spoke as he ate lunch on a scenic rooftop deck here Saturday afternoon, a rare interlude from the festival’s frenzy. He had just come from a news conference and would have even more interviews prior to his premiere and its attendant red-carpet hoopla.
He’s busier than usual for a reason. After three films little-seen in the U.S., the 43-year-old became a surprise phenomenon stateside in 2014 when his “Force Majeure,” a story of a couple grappling with difficult truths after an avalanche, became a critical hit and was shortlisted for the foreign-language Oscar.
“The Square,” which arrives in U.S. theaters from Magnolia later this year, revisits his previous movie’s themes of morality and doubles down on them. Christian (Claes Bang) is a well-heeled museum director intent on preserving the pleasant artifice of his life by not looking too hard beneath it. But a series of events soon begin, ever-so-gently, to force a glance.
There’s a surprise robbery of his designer wallet, an art exhibit about communal altruism he’s charged with overseeing, a questionable YouTube video from museum artists he is held responsible for, persistent awkward encounters with the urban homeless on the commute from his upscale apartment and one awkward romantic encounter with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss).
As with so much in Ostlund’s work, none of them come as major Hollywood-style epiphanies; a slow accretion of events chip away at a character.
Anchoring “The Square” is an extended sequence in which a grunting man, in primitive garb and on all fours, intimidates attendees at a black-tie museum dinner as part of the night’s entertainment — a scenario that evolves to perhaps the most startling and disturbing moment this festival has seen in years.
The second most striking aspect of the scene is you can’t believe people in it are reacting the way they are. The most striking is that, as a viewer, you may quickly find yourself asking if you’d behave just as they do.
“That’s what I love about dilemmas in movies,” Ostlund said, with a hint of glee. “It’s something easy to relate to but hard to handle.”
That the scene about the insular champagne set will, in a few hours, screen to same was not lost on Ostlund. “I love thinking that people in a screening sitting silent in tuxedos are watching people on-screen sitting silent in tuxedos,” he added.
One of the defining traits of “The Square” is a desire to talk about it with a high level of investment; in the halls and streets of this gathering on Saturday, journalists who’d seen the movie could be heard personalizing and debating characters’ actions in a way rarely experienced in the detached world of a film festival.
Ostlund said he was motivated to make these kind of behaviorist-experiment movies, in which viewers are as much research sample as audience members, by his sociologist mother. When he was young, she would conduct experiments that would fascinate him; when he began making movies, he decided to build narratives around them.
But it is a balance, he acknowledged. Push too far in the case-study direction and it’s not a movie anymore; take them out and it’s not his movie.
Like any good research experiment, what characterizes Ostlund’s work is the element of the unknown. Many scenes play out in ways that shift trajectory — and tones — unexpectedly. When Christian and Moss’ character sleep together, for instance, what starts as a relatively straightforward one-night stand leads to a post-coital argument like few ever shown on screen.
“I really like scenes that when they end where you don’t know 100% where to put them. It starts funny or it starts sad and then it becomes something else,” Ostlund said. “When you get that shift, you know you’ve succeeded.”