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  • Films
  • Issue 49

Crude, contrary—and killing it: Meet the auteur of awkwardness.
Words by Elle Hunt. Photography by Sina Östlund.

There are very few scenarios that Ruben Östlund can’t turn into a social experiment. When the Swedish filmmaker first started flying business class, for example, he noticed himself eating more slowly, holding himself with greater control and behaving in general “a little bit more sophisticated,” he admits.

Östlund quotes from psychological papers like they are knock-knock jokes, and passes on insights into human behavior as if engrossed in irresistible gossip about mutual friends. One of his favorite findings is that people would prefer to give themselves an electric shock than be left alone with their thoughts.

“I think sociology is hilarious,” he says. Östlund’s work, as a writer and director, is like a rollicking game of “Would you rather?” with the most clued-in, whip-smart crowd you know. His movies test audiences’ sympathies, challenge their assumptions and dare them to confront the contradictions in their thinking. 

In Force Majeure, for example—Östlund’s breakout feature from 2014—a couple grapples with the aftermath of a father and husband’s split-second decision, in the face of an apparent avalanche, to abandon his family. In The Square, masculinity and privilege are warped by the surreal lens of contemporary art. Triangle of Sadness, his English-language debut, contrasts the world of the rich and beautiful with a gleefully gross second act when a luxury cruise ship encounters rough seas.1

For all three movies, Östlund was the sole writer and director—and his star has ascended steadily with each. Having won the Palme d’Or himself with Triangle of Sadness in 2022, Östlund returned to Cannes this year as a judge. He approached the panel prepared to push boundaries: “The most boring thing is consensus,” he declared at the opening of the festival—though, as president of the jury, Östlund was tasked with reaching just that.

When we speak at the end of May, one week after the festival’s close, he acknowledges the apparent tension with a rueful laugh. “The presidency is more of being a diplomat, of course, in order to make sure that everybody can say what they want to say. . . . I’m much more of an agitator, you know?” (That said, he is satisfied with the panel’s decision to honor Anatomy of a Fall, by the French director Justine Triet.)

Östlund is speaking over Zoom from a kitchen table in Hamburg, where his wife, the fashion photographer Sina Östlund, has a shoot. (They live between Gothenburg and Majorca.) He’s just emerged from a lunchtime nap with their young son, Elias, now in the care of a friend off-camera. It’s a welcome return to domestic life after the glitz, glamour and rigorous debate of the festival—though that, too, Östlund seemed to approach as fieldwork.

( 1 ) The movie is noted for a 15-minute-long scene in which many of the characters become violently seasick and projectile vomit at the same time as the boat’s sewage system erupts.

“I always try to look for a dilemma: when you have two or more options, but none of them are easy.”

As president of the jury, he was extended the full red-carpet treatment—including personal security, he says, bemused. “It’s been a very interesting experience to go from being in Cannes, and having a driver and a bodyguard for 14 days—to now going with a baby trolley to the playground and taking care of my son.”

Östlund’s interest in human nature was fostered from an early age by his parents, both teachers. One of his earliest memories, from when he was about 10, is of coming upon a Rolls-Royce while out with his father in Denmark. The driver told them that the angel ornament on the hood had been deliberately removed—too many people had been spitting on it. How times change, observes Östlund: “In the ’80s, it was shameful to show off with wealth.” (At least in Scandinavia, he adds.)

Often, these recollections have fed directly into his films. When Östlund was 16, his mother told him about the Asch conformity test, a famous psychological experiment from 1935, which investigated the impact of group pressure. Tasking a group of strangers with solving a straightforward logic problem, it found that one-third of participants would give the answer that was favored by the majority, even if it was clearly incorrect. Östlund’s mother was staging the experiment with her students. “I was thinking: ’How can you do this?” he says. “But I couldn’t forget about it.”

Decades later, the theme of peer pressure informs the premise of Östlund’s 2007 film Involuntary.2 At a scene level, too—instead of relying on conflict to drive the narrative, or the now-ubiquitous “trauma plot,” centering on characters’ historic hardships—Östlund taps that powder keg of social mores. “I always try to look for a dilemma: when you have two or more options, but none of them are easy,” he says. “It’s not about who the individuals are; it’s about a human being dealing with a specific situation or setup.”

For Östlund, films can highlight our common humanity, even where it’s not expected—and especially where it’s somewhat ridiculous. What bores him most are stories about psychopaths, “because the problem is already solved from the beginning: We have to catch that person and put them behind bars,” he says with a shrug. “I love when the stakes are socially dangerous, rather than physically dangerous.”

( 2 ) Group dynamics makes its way into the five interweaving narratives at the heart of Involuntary, as when a schoolteacher gives her students a lesson about not going along with the majority, but subsequently finds herself under peer pressure in the staff room.

He argues that audiences, too, find it easier to invest in a precise, interpersonal premise such as the marital fault lines abruptly—and excruciatingly—exposed in Force Majeure. That film drew from Östlund’s years of experience in early adulthood, working at ski resorts in the Alps. It was there that he started making ski films, which later gained him admission to film school. “I didn’t come from a cinema background—that was how I got my 10,000 hours of practice,” he says.

When Östlund graduated in 2001, he was steeped in the French New Wave movement—prized by his teachers—and inspired by the Dogme 95 realist filmmaking more recently pioneered in Denmark by director Lars von Trier.3 Filmmaking, to Östlund, was a technical or aesthetic challenge; it wasn’t until a decade later that he began to understand the importance of bringing his audience with him.

For the premiere of his film Play, at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, Östlund was seated behind a couple who made no attempt to conceal their impatience with his six-minute-long opening scene. Östlund imitates the man’s heavy sigh, dramatic eye roll, his head lolling in his chair. “It was a very painful moment,” he says. But it also made him realize that he wanted his films to engage people as much as they challenged them.

“I started to think that I had made a typical, genre, European art house film and I wanted to break free from that—I wanted to make films that were wild and entertaining, and thought-provoking at the same time . . . films that I’d actually want to watch myself,” he says.

In setting out to please himself, Östlund has garnered his greatest critical and commercial successes yet. The Square and Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2017 and 2022, making Östlund only the ninth director to have ever been honored twice. But in the past year alone, Östlund’s work has reached his biggest, broadest audience yet, with Triangle of Sadness grossing $38.2 million at the global box office off the back of its three Oscar nominations.4 Its provocative campaign (with the headline “Wealthy people of privilege: this film is about you”), emphasized Östlund’s reputation as the court jester or Shakespearean fool, holding a mirror up to power to reveal a far-from-flattering reflection.

But it highlights a growing tension: As his profile rises and his films venture further mainstream, Östlund moves closer to the institutions that he seeks to skewer. Triangle of Sadness received an eight-minute standing ovation at Cannes, despite—or perhaps because of—its merciless satirizing of the ultra-rich.

For an armchair sociologist like Östlund, each screening has been fascinating. One audience member, at a viewing in Paris, was vocal with his complaint that the film’s portrayal of the rich was “too simple.” Östlund chuckles: “It turns out he was one of the richest guys in France, like a billionaire—so I’m happy that he got upset.”

At other times, the response has been perplexing—such as when Östlund was invited to speak at a screening of Triangle of Sadness, held as a charitable fundraiser by a luxury cruise company. “That was kind of surprising,” he says, laughing. “I have to ask myself if I maybe failed with what I was trying to do.”

Östlund is no fan of the one-note “eat the rich” sentiment increasingly being served up by Hollywood, though he has been credited with starting the trend. Often, he says, discussions of inequality place too much emphasis on the individual (though it’s true, he adds, that “billionaires don’t like to pay taxes”). His intention with Triangle of Sadness was to explore class and privilege through the economic and social structures underpinning them.

His understanding of Marxist politics, fostered by his mother, informed Woody Harrelson’s role as a communist captain, as well as the highly stratified society of the cruise liner itself, upended when disaster strikes. “The left wing describes society almost in the same way as Hollywood does: The rich capitalist is evil, the poor people in the bottom are genuine and nice,” says Östlund.

“It’s almost like the left-wingers have forgotten about Marx, you know? Our behavior comes from which position we have in the financial and social structure.” That, of course, equally implicates him. “I don’t consider myself more or less privileged than the main characters,” he says.

( 3 ) Dogme 95 was a Danish avant-garde movement created by Lars von Trier with the intent of “purifying” film-making by refusing to use special effects and post-production. The ten commandments in its manifesto were referred to as the “Vow of Chastity.”

( 4 ) Triangle of Sadness was nominated for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Director at this year’s Academy Awards.

“I don’t consider myself more or less privileged than the main characters.”

That, to Östlund, is the great power of cinema as sociological lens: It can show people as we are, shedding light on the hidden influences on our behaviors and beliefs, and allow us to process it together. With Triangle of Sadness, Östlund sought to create a collective experience, in defiance of the siloed, solo streaming so common today. “I wanted the audience to feel like they were on a roller coaster ride, watching it together when they went to the cinema.”

However, some critics, particularly in the US, reviewed Triangle of Sadness as a blunt anti-rich diatribe.5 It is “of course” frustrating when his nuance is flattened or intent misread—but not unexpected, he says, in a climate that can be inclined to shy from both personal responsibility and creative risk. “Because I was leaving the Swedish language and going over to English, I felt that I had to punch much harder in order to push the humor,” says Östlund. (Downhill, the 2020 American remake of Force Majeure, starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, smooths Östlund’s sharp comedy down to a nub.)

His own measure of failure is relative, he says: “If I can’t identify with the character’s behavior, then I’ve failed. I have to see the possibility of their actions myself. Otherwise, I don’t want to go there.” With research, Östlund says he was able to empathize with even the most reprehensible rich passengers on Triangle of Sadness (though he admits: “It was kind of hard sometimes”).

Östlund’s personal outlook on humanity is more positive than his films may suggest, he says. “We’re really good at collaborating and taking care of each other; we are really focused on trying to create an equal society. My films just focus on when we’re failing,” he adds with a smile.

Far from being absorbed into the establishment, success seems to be only making Östlund more daring. After the indirect social experiment of screening Triangle of Sadness at Cannes, for his next film, Östlund intends to stage an actual provocation.

He is currently in the early stages of writing the script for The Entertainment System Is Down. The setup is classic Östlund: With Harrelson once again as their captain, a group of passengers settle into a long-haul flight only to discover that they have no on-board entertainment, internet or digital distractions. Östlund describes it as a “disaster movie”: “I’m so happy with the premise,” he says, delightedly.

As the characters ration a tablet’s remaining charge, or seek to distract combustible young children, those in the theater will similarly have their patience tested. True to the electric shock experiment on “the disengaged mind,” Östlund’s hypothesis is that, challenged to sit with their thoughts, his audience will unravel along with the characters. His aim, he says, “is to create the biggest walkout in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.”

Correction: The print version of this story featured an error. The text that appears on Page 172 is an uncorrected duplicate of Page 171 and should be disregarded.

( 5 ) The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott wrote a particularly scathing critique, calling the movie “a preening, obvious satire of contemporary hypocrisy” and “a shaggy-dog art-house reboot of Gilligan’s Island.”

( 5 ) The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott wrote a particularly scathing critique, calling the movie “a preening, obvious satire of contemporary hypocrisy” and “a shaggy-dog art-house reboot of Gilligan’s Island.”


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Forty-Nine

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