“I hope it will be less painful this time…”
— Ruben Östlund, joking about The Square’s selection as Sweden’s official nominee for Best Foreign Language Film for the 90th Academy Awards
Although the Nordic country is a mainstay of the award season in the United States, having been represented 15 times since 1956, Sweden has only taken the prize for Best Foreign Language Film on three occasions, and only for famed master Ingmar Bergman (The Virgin Spring in 1960, Through a Glass Darkly in 1961, and Fanny and Alexander in 1983). The 43-year-old writer/director Ruben Östlund, among sweeping Swedish classicist Jan Troell and the darkly comedic, stagy minimalist Roy Andersson, stand as the Scandinavian country’s greatest hopes for capturing the prize beyond Bergman’s shadow (each director has had multiple films submitted by their home country). This year, with Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square, Sweden, and Östlund, hope to finally win the prize and come out from under the austere legacy of Bergman.
Östlund (like Andersson but unlike Troell) has yet to secure the nomination, but has had his films submitted twice before. His 2008 film Involuntary and his 2014 film Force Majeure, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, each lost the nomination. Following the announcement of the nominees in 2014, Östlund and his producer staged a “reaction video” off the director discovering his film would not compete. In the video, which, like the long-take stylization of his own films, runs in real-time over 6 minutes, you see Östlund and his producer, business partner, and friend looking down at a laptop, presumably candidly listening to the Academy nominee announcements. They comment on their competition, look equal parts bemused and bored, and, for most of the video, do very little else.
When the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film are finally announced, the two men stiffen up as they wait to hear their movie called. When the list is read through with no mention of Force Majeure, Östlund stumbles out of frame and can be heard in the distance screaming and wailing, upset by yet another exclusion from the chance to even compete. He behaves conspicuously like the main character of his movie, a performance play on the involuntary response of losing, of humiliation. His producer can be heard consoling him, using a line from the movie, “Don’t undress.” The prank, uploaded to YouTube by Östlund’s production company, was at first perceived as authentic by some commentators. Later, it would be included as a special feature on the Blu-ray release of Force Majeure, a supplemental extension of the film itself.
Encapsulated in the video is a sort of thesis of Östlund’s thematic interest, the compulsory behavior of the human animal as troublesome to ego identity and as socially destabilizing, as threatening to our group identifications through the revealing of contradiction between an “authentic” self and a social self. The Oscars as a collective ritual is the perfect stage for Östlund’s concerns which neatly extend to his most recent film The Square, its own success at Cannes and throughout the festival circuit, and its contending for that coveted foreign language Oscar nomination.
In The Square, Östlund moves his drama of manners and masculinity into the world of high art. Following Christian, curator for the prestigious (fictitious) X-Royal Museum of Contemporary Art, and his several crises of character, Östlund lampoons the pompous and pretentious professionals, donors, and sycophants of the art world, while revealing the isolation of one class from a world of people separate from and unsuspected by the enclosures of wealth, power, and status.
Despite the film’s success at festival, it’s not been without critical dissent and scrutiny. Art about art invites a self-awareness that threatens any theses it may submit; is it not itself guilty of its own charges? While Östlund may be perceived as undeservedly judgey, his observations are not without evidence nor are they made without a sense of humour or irreverence. The project is ambitious and the constant inward-looking nature of commenting on art invites pitfalls, but Östlund’s sincere attention to his pet interests (especially behavioral psychology) and his playfulness with the problems he’s probing guide his audience excitedly along. Even when The Square may take a cheap shot, or introduce a banal critique, it does so with a flourish, a Hail Mary that at least impresses for style and temerity.
And, if The Square and Östlund fail yet again to secure the Academy’s nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, it’s not unlikely we won’t be treated to another hoax at the expense of the Oscars and its audience. Östlund may lose the nomination but he’ll maintain a sense of humour about it.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.