Words and Interview

Ella Kemp



Stéphanie Sergeant

Ruben Östlund: ‘I was interested in beauty as a currency’

The two-time Palme d'Or-winning provocateur chats idealism, misogyny and modeling as Triangle of Sadness hits cinemas.

If there is a problem in society, you will most likely find Ruben Östlund in the panic room cackling at it. It’s a little futile to ask him whether anything is off-limits, because you’re only asking for trouble. The two-time Palme D’Or winner (The Square in 2017, this year’s Triangle of Sadness) will say that it isn’t, and proceed to educate you on capitalism, Marxism, #MeToo, hypocrisy and philanthropy. Which he did here, with a wicked smile and calm sense of control, when we spoke to him during a rare moment of quiet and serious conversation at this year’s BFI London Film Festival.

LWLies: Which language do you find it easiest to be funny in?

Ruben Östlund: I think it’s easier with Swedish, but my wife is German, and we speak English to each other. She was brought up in Australia, so I got some training in the English language to try to make her laugh. But then I also think the kind of situations that I’m dealing with in my films, very simple setups often, maybe I have to punch a little harder in English. The Square was a good trial for me. But the first scene in Triangle of Sadness when Carl [Harris Dickinson] and Yaya [Charlbi Dean] are arguing about the bill, it was easier for me to find the words exactly in Swedish.

I love that first sequence between Carl and Yaya, it’s excruciating. I’m interested to know what you think of the gender politics of the film industry, the way men and women speak about money when it comes to filmmaking in particular.

Since women are always paid less money than men, women become more like concerned about how they are paid when they get into the film industry. Many men going into the film industry don’t have any problem working for free for a couple of years, because they don’t have this on their shoulders that they are not treated equally.

I also think it’s a burden for women who can’t just go in like, ‘This is a fun group of people, I really want to spend time with them’ without thinking about not being treated equally. But then, of course, this is the beginning that I’m talking about. Because then when everybody started to get paid, then it’s a different issue, of course. I like to explore gender expectations and the way culture has trained us to behave, and how we’re dealing with it. #MeToo was a great movement, but you also could do #IGotBilled, and the men could tell the stories about when they were treated like a wallet. But when I bring it up, the men just say: “I can’t go there.”

Do you relate to that sentiment in any way? The sense of humour in your films is often risky – when is the point where you worry and have to pull back?

There are some jokes in this film that I didn’t go for. When you get older as a filmmaker and you’ve tried certain provocations, you realise that some areas bring about guilt by association. For example, I don’t think I’d redo [2011 feature] Play in the same way. It’s about five Black boys robbing three white boys and I was interested in looking at what we project on skin colour. It was inspired by real events, and these boys were playing into stereotypical ideas of Black men as dangerous, and it was taken straight out of popular culture, so I was questioning that representation when it came to the movie and the way it can reproduce a certain behaviour in reality. But if I don’t know how to motivate what I’ve done, I wouldn’t go into a provocation. But if I feel there’s a consensus thought on topics I don’t agree on, I’m willing to go into it.

For Triangle, I was interested in beauty as a currency. And it was written partly during the #MeToo movement, and I thought it was very interesting to have a man that has this currency in his sexuality and his beauty, and to see in which way he would use it if he ended up being dependent on a woman who had all the resources.

I want to talk about Harris Dickinson and his performance as Carl. He’s mentioned he doesn’t have much modelling experience, and you cast him opposite Charlbi Dean, who is incredible, and obviously has such extensive experience. How much does authenticity and that proximity to the real world matter to you?

It was good that Harris hadn’t done much modelling, because Charlbi was so comfortable in posing for the boyfriend of Instagram shots. I wanted Carl to start doubting his profession: “I don’t feel as beautiful as I did. I’m losing my currency and my looks.” But you could tell Charlbi had a huge amount of experience of being in front of a camera, and that made her a really skilful actor. She was not afraid of the camera at all – and it’s natural to be afraid of the camera, because it’s going to depict you exactly the way you are.

What did Charlbi teach you in terms of her experience?

I wanted Yaya to be more experienced when it comes to manoeuvring people who want to maybe have sex with her. So we talked a little bit about these things and I said, ‘Of course, you have to deal with thisa lot when you’re like travelling around, and meeting people in powerful positions.’ And she said, ‘I’m quite good at playing drunk, so I pretend to be drunk and that I have to go home.’

Much of Triangle Of Sadness, but one sequence in particular, demands an extremely visceral response from your audience. It’s something you’ve done often in your films, making people shriek and feel unwell. At this point in your career do you have a method to get these bodily reactions out of viewers?

I don’t know what it is, the characters are either peeing or shitting in all my movies, I don’t know why. I think there’s a reason why we react to vomiting. We are trained as animals to be afraid of it, because it can be a disease, an infection, bacteria, and we should avoid it.

I only knew that I wanted Woody Harrelson to play this Marxist captain that gets really drunk with the oligarch. They play with a microphone system, and they start reading all these political messengers to the vomiting passengers. I fell in love with that setup. I also knew that if I’m going to do vomiting, I don’t want to do it just a little bit, I wanted to push it further than what people expect me to do, and I want to the audience at a certain point to say, ‘Please save them, they’ve had enough.’ And then after that moment, I want to go even further.

It’s quite destabilising the way you combine that very physical, visceral, silly centrepiece with these political manifestos. How do you go about incorporating your politics into films that are being released into societies that just aren’t very left-wing?

I always want to ask people who watch my films: what is the political message? I’ve been completely uninterested in making it into like something that is supporting the left-wing socialist movement only. I think there’s a lot of great things with the market economy and great things with regulated capitalism.

When I was doing the film, I was almost wanting to go into the world we were dealing with in the 80s, when we had a Western perspective of the world and we had an Eastern perspective of the world. The Western perspective is delivering capitalistic ideas, and the Eastern is the socialist-communist ideas. So I thought it was almost like these two different ideologies have been bashing their head against each other. And I thought, haven’t we left that behind us? And now we can talk about how to really create a great, improved society.

So if you want to read something, where I agree on a lot of the thoughts on how we should build a better society, I will recommend a book called Utopia for Realists by Rutger Bregman. He is talking about basic income. I think that all of us agree on is that it’s not okay to exploit other people. And it’s not okay to pay them an unfair part of the profit. And if you look at Sweden during the 80s, social democracy actually managed to regulate capitalism in a quite good way, and we shared the responsibility of the society. But people have told me what’s going on in the UK now… I get sad when I hear that.

The political context in which Triangle Of Sadness premiered was somewhat contradictory, where everybody loved the film in Cannes, but I felt this tension between the audience laughing, thinking we’re so unlike these characters, while yacht parties are taking place right outside the screening room.

People working in the film industry and working with culture are often very interested in improving society. Even if you’re a billionaire. When you meet this billionaire, what do you want to tell them? Give away your money? Is that the solution? Do you believe in philanthropy? We have now a society where very rich people are motivating their position by also being great philanthropists.

Philanthropy is a way of maintaining power, it’s the luxury of being on top. So when we look at the audience in Cannes, there’s a word that I don’t like: “hypocrites”. It’s such an easy way of disqualifying people’s engagement in society. There are certain problems that can only be solved on society and a system level. We tend in our times to bring down these big topics and point fingers at the individual, saying, “Oh, so you’re flying, you should be ashamed.”

Come on, if we don’t share the responsibility for this, nothing will happen. It’s almost like consumer power, which is the most absurd thing that I’ve heard, because what is distributed to you is what you’re going to buy. But then you put the responsibility on the consumer and say, ‘Well, if there is a company that is not dealing with the environmental the crisis in a good way, you can buy another brand.’

I often think there’s the neoliberalist idea that we are free as individuals, and we can do whatever we want. But what Marx also invented was sociology, and it’s about human behaviour. And that comes from his specific context, and actually pointing fingers on the context and the situation that creates behaviour, rather than putting shame on the individual. And I think we lack that kind of view on the world and our actions today.

Of course, I want to confront myself, because I’m flying business class, I live in a five-star hotel when I’m travelling, and I have money in my bank account. But what should we do? Should we lay down and die?

Published 26 Oct 2022

Tags: Harris Dickinson Ruben Östlund Triangle of Sadness

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