Ruben Östlund: ‘Rich people are nice. They just don’t want to pay taxes. That’s the problem’
The Swedish director won the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes with ‘The Square,’ a savage satire about the world of contemporary art. Last year he did it again with ‘Triangle of Sadness,’ a cynical, funny and cruel portrait of fashion and the privileged classes
In October 2022, the Evolution Mallorca International Film Festival screened Triangle of Sadness, a film by Ruben Östlund, at the opening gala. The movie won the Palme d’Or at the last Cannes Film Festival and has been nominated for three Academy Awards (Best Motion Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Achievement in Directing).
Östlund went up on stage in Mallorca for the film’s presentation and to engage with the audience. He then went off to dinner at a nearby tavern, in the old port of Palma, along with his wife, a group of journalists and the people in charge of the film’s distribution in Spain.
While having dessert, Östlund realized that the movie was about to end and that he had to go back to the theater to greet everyone. He got up in a hurry and grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair. While putting it on, he knocked over some bottles of wine displayed on a shelf behind him. Three fell to the ground and shattered, leaving a huge burgundy puddle on the floor.
The director looked at what he had done before pronouncing, “what a mess.” He then took a photo of the puddle with his phone and walked out the door, as if nothing had happened.
Someone noted: “This has been a very Ruben Östlund moment.”
What is a Ruben Östlund moment? Well, in the Swedish director’s films, the action is generally triggered by an unexpected event. It may be minor – such as the theft of a cellphone in The Square (2017), which also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes – or major, such as an avalanche that endangers a family in Force Majeure (2014). But it is the reaction to these events – an absurd idea to recover the phone, or the father abandoning his family to save his own life – that really propels the plots in Östlund’s movies. The characters – be it an upright and hard-working father, or a kind and willful museum director – end up collapsing. Yet they can’t blame anyone for the fall, because what happens to them is the sole result of their own actions.
Ruben Östlund’s films deal with many topics, but one stands out above the rest: how to live with shame. The satirical tone of the scripts – which are extremely dark in nature – makes it difficult to tell if the director is a humanist or a cynic.
“I can only say that I have a very positive vision of human beings,” he says. “I think one of the reasons we’re so successful as a species is that we’re very good at collaborating and we really care about each other. But there are extreme examples of cynical behavior. I am interested in those extreme examples. My films may not really represent what I think the world is like.”
“I’m not interested in strong hero characters. I’ve never been interested in that. I’m interested in when we fail.”
He explains all of this to EL PAÍS in Mallorca, the Spanish island where he lives with his wife and son.
“I have a house here and a flat in Sweden. We moved to be closer to my in-laws. The character in Triangle of Sadness who only says in den wolken [in the clouds] is based on my mother-in-law. She had a stroke a couple of years ago and had aphasia.”
That’s why the broken bottles moment is so Ruben Östlund. It gives the impression that anything out of the ordinary in his life could appear in one of his future films. He’s vigilant at all times to find dialogues and characters to include in them. Perhaps this very interview could appear in his work.
“For the moment, this has been a comfortable conversation, so I don’t think that will happen! But if it was awkward, maybe. But of course I pick things up all the time. My next film – The Entertainment System is Down – is going to take place in an airport.”
“I was once flying from Milan to Palma and I was fascinated. First of all, when you do the check-in with the luggage – when you leave it at the counter – the person sitting behind the computer always looks like they have the biggest problem in the world to find. What are they looking for?”
Östlund then reflects on another airport spot: the conveyor belt for luggage.
“It’s basically one of the few places in our society where rich people act like workers in a factory. Standing in line, waiting to carry their own luggage. Yes, I like trying to analyze how people behave and talk to see if I can use something.”
The rich and privileged are the protagonists of his latest film. That title that sounds so deep –Triangle of Sadness – is actually how the fashion world refers to the frown lines that appear between our eyebrows. It’s also an allusion to where botox is injected.
Divided into three parts, the movie begins with a couple of models and influencers in Paris. It becomes increasingly wild, verges on the crude and ends in a very different place from the beginning.
“My wife has been working in the fashion industry for like 15 years. I got very curious about her profession. One thing that I don’t like about the fashion industry and the beauty industry is that it’s playing on people’s insecurities. And the more insecure you are, the more you consume. I thought this was interesting.”
“In [the case of this film], I was interested in looking at beauty and sexuality as currency. If you look at the models, they can come from the working class. And, very quickly, they can rise in society and get used to this [luxurious] environment. This idea is the core of the film.”
Östlund’s characters are real, they breathe. Sometimes they seem more important than the plot. Although it’s not clear if he likes them.
“Of course I like them. I think sometimes I’m misunderstood, that I don’t seem to like my characters… but I do like them, even though they’re not good human beings. I like them even if they make mistakes. I want to put them in situations where we can identify with their mistakes, where we can identify with them and think, ‘God, maybe I would have done that too.’ I have a lot of sympathy for them and what they’re dealing with.”
Östlund’s male characters make up a catalog of weakness. He says that his last three films – Force Majeure, The Square and Triangle of Sadness – form a trilogy about masculinity.
“When I was editing, trying to decide what to tell, I realized that, once again, I was talking about a man grappling with society’s expectations of masculinity and struggling with his identity. The great thing about saying it’s a trilogy is that it’s a method of making people pay attention to your previous work,” he jokes.
Through his films, he gives the impression that he sees the straight white male as quite fragile.
“It’s always him I punish the most. Yes. It’s been interesting, you know, to be a white man and to be on the privileged part of the hierarchy when it comes to the economy and so on. And all of a sudden – in the last maybe 10 years – the spotlight has been turned towards us and we’ve been forced, by the public debate, to ask questions about our behavior.”
Östlund was born in Styrsö, a Swedish town located on an island in the municipality of Gothenburg, where barely 1,500 people live. He explains that he decided to make movies after watching a music video: Michael Jackson’s Thriller.
“It was scary – it had a huge impact on me. In the little village where I was brought up, the [council] arranged it so that we could borrow a VHS camcorder. It became possible for me to film my hobbies. I was into windsurfing and I loved skiing. So what I started to film was skiing and windsurfing. I was spending time in the Alps and in North America, filming and skiing in the winters and then editing in the summers. That became my film school.”
“After a while, I got tired of spending time at ski resorts. I applied to film school at the University of Gothenburg, where I met some people that really changed my perception of what I wanted to do and inspired me. In a way, [my career] wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t met those people.”
He graduated in 2001, at the age of 26. He would eventually become a teacher at that same school – a role he still holds.
“What I tell my students is that they have to know how to tell you about their ideas. They have to know how to pitch what they’re working with… they shouldn’t believe in the myth about being a creative, that you shouldn’t tell anyone [about what you’re working on] and that you have a connection with God and are creating a genius masterpiece. They must understand that, by telling others about their ideas, they get to know them better and understand how they should direct them.”
That’s the situation when it comes to being a filmmaker. You have to convince a lot of people that this [idea] is something you should put money into. You have to engage a lot of people [in a production]. You have to be a social person.”
Ruben Östlund is ambitious and he doesn’t hide it. He made his debut in 2004 with The Guitar Mongoloid, a delirium with which he managed to attract attention. Then came the more sprawling Involuntary (2008) and the provocative Play (2011).
In 2014, he made a big leap with Force Majeure, which won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. The next year, a YouTube video of Östlund went viral. The film had been shortlisted for what was then the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (now the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film). In the video, he appears with his producer in a hotel room in New York City, following the live announcement of the nominations. When he realizes that his film is not a candidate, he leaves the camera shot and is heard crying uncontrollably. He simply couldn’t believe that he had been left out.
With Triangle of Sadness, he has managed to secure the three main nominations, but to do so, he had to shoot the film in English. When asked if he did it for commercial reasons, he doesn’t hesitate for a second before answering with a resounding yes.
“One thing that I also talk about [with my students] is that, if you think that you have content that you believe is important, you have to try to get it out to as wide [an audience] as possible, because there’s a lot of competition. The view that we have of the world is affected by what we see and what we read. So, if you want to be a part of the competition and really push the world in a certain direction, you have to fight for attention.”
“Also, I’m married to a German woman,” he chuckles. “We communicate in English. English is closer to me now than it was 20 years ago.”
In exchange for this international success, he has also sacrificed talking about what is happening in his country – something he did in his early films. In Play, for example, he focused on a group of Black teenagers from immigrant families in Gothenburg, who scam kids from affluent backgrounds into giving them their cellphones. Play deals with racism and with the formulas by which relationships of trust are established and maintained, a theme that is very current, considering that the far-right Sweden Democrats placed second in the general elections this past September.
“I think it is due to the climate created by the media. To spread your message, you have to say extreme things. You have to provoke on an extreme level. And that has happened in politics, the extreme right has gone crazy, but they’ve gotten a lot of attention with the bullshit they say. I don’t know how to break that pattern. I don’t know what to do about it. But it would be nice to see that every time the Sweden Democrats say something completely stupid, it doesn’t make the front page of the newspaper.”
Östlund ridicules the groups that monopolize the media conversation. In Triangle of Sadness, he takes on the world of fashion, which he describes as something so superficial and classist that it ranges from the terrifying to the pathetic. He also deals with the rich, whom he presents as strange beings.
“I actually try to make the most sympathetic characters into the rich characters. In the film, there’s an arms dealer and a Russian oligarch… I wanted them to be super nice. I wanted the oligarchs to be the [characters] that you really want to sit around and talk with.”
American distributors and reviewers have chosen a phrase for the promotion of the film that the director finds inappropriate: “Eat the rich.” The slogan is widely-used by anti-capitalists – it originates from a slogan used during the French Revolution, “When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.”
“It’s a very silly explanation of the world. Rich people are nice. They just don’t want to pay taxes. That’s the problem.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition