In the film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, a contemporary art museum installs an empty space as a work of art, devoted to free expression. As well as presenting work that is intended to provoke, the museum is also the stage for displays of wealth. Written and directed by the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, it is a broad and sometimes brutal satire, where the museum’s director, an arbiter of taste played by Claes Bang, navigates the battlefields of political correctness and shock art. (Elisabeth Moss portrays a familiarly bemused journalist.) We spoke to Ostlund at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where the work had its North American premiere. It opens in theatres in New York on 26 October, and will be screened at the New York Film Festival (NYFF, 28 September-15 October).

The Art Newspaper: How long had the script for The Square been around before it was produced?

Ruben Östlund: A friend and I had made an installation [similar to the work in the film], in four different cities—two in Sweden and two in Norway—in 2011. I was writing the script and dealing with these topics since then.

Would the installation have been able to stand by itself without the film?

Yes. We actually built the installation before the film was finished, in the city of Värnamo, Sweden. In that city, it actually created a small movement. People were going there and organising demonstrations against violence, or against the city for taking handicap benefits from them. That inspiration worked without the film.

There was a very beautiful thing that happened there this summer. A note was left that said, “Thanks to you who helped my son.” [The person who wrote it] didn’t know who it was. They wanted to find a way of thanking this person, so they made a small demonstration in The Square in Varnamo. It also says something about smaller cities, that they actually have the ability to improve and adapt to a new idea. Read more