Director Spotlight: Ruben Östlund

Updated: Nov 9

Ruben Östlund is known for his stunning cinematography, biting satire, and ambitious stories. His films usually revolve around a series of moral dilemmas in which characters are presented with two or more choices, none of which are the easy way out. The Swedish auteur is also one of nine people to have won the Palme D’or twice. As Triangle of Sadness hits theaters, it’s only right that I take a deep dive into some of his best works.


Force Majeure (2014)

Force Majeure revolves around a family embarking on a week-long ski trip in the Alps. One morning while eating lunch on a terrace overlooking a mountain, they witness a controlled avalanche. When it appears as if the avalanche is going to hit the restaurant, Tomas (Johannes Bah Kuhnke), the husband, grabs his phone and runs away from his family, abandoning his wife Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli) and their kids. Although the avalanche did not end up causing any real harm, Tomas’s cowardly actions force the couple to confront the issues in their marriage and ultimately end up ruining their vacation.


Of Östlund’s three most recent directorial outings, Force Majeure is by far in a way his most thematically refined and simple. The movie mainly explores the gender roles within a failing marriage as well as the toxic masculinity that ends up destroying the fragile Tomas. Although other Östlund films might feel compelled to sprinkle in some class commentary, as well as a touch of humor, Force Majeure is comfortable being more straightforward, which is perhaps its greatest strength. Not to say the film isn’t complex, or that the movie is devoid of dark humor, but the film’s directness allows for its themes to be developed fully.

If I had to use one word to describe Force Majeure, it would be "precise." It isn’t a particularly flashy movie, but you can clearly tell that Östlund is in complete control of his craft for each and every scene. After presenting us with the initial moral dilemma involving the avalanche, the movie takes its time in exposing the bed of lies Tomas lies upon. The greater the unpeeling of Tomas’ facade over the course of the film, the sadder the movie ultimately becomes. Soon enough, Tomas is forced to confront just how pathetic of a man he is. It leads to one of my favorite scenes in the film in which he has an emotional breakdown in front of his family. The movie is filled with interesting and tragic moments like this.

Force Majeure isn’t necessarily a feel-good watch, but it is a ridiculously compelling drama with meticulous filmmaking and acting. Each shot is stunning and each conversation was compelling and thought-provoking. Force Majeure was a great starter to Östlund’s subsequent work.


The Square (2017)

After the successful Force Majeure, Östlund decided to take his next film in a more comedic direction. The Square centers around Christian (Claes Bang), a curator for an art museum, who is about to reveal the museum’s newest controversial exhibit. In the midst of this, he is also trying to track down an unknown pickpocket who has stolen his phone and wallet, which leads to some unexpected consequences.


This Palme d’Or-winning film was a lot to take in on a first watch, and although the end result is a bit more mixed than Force Majeure, a film that is consistently great throughout its runtime, The Square still does a lot right. First off, I found the main protagonist Christian to be remarkably entertaining and memorable, which is in large part due to an unbelievably charismatic performance from Claes Bang. Elizabeth Moss is also a great addition to the film as Anne, an oddball journalist. Her screen time is admittedly brief, but every scene involving her character was hilarious and a highlight of the film.

There are also a handful of scenes that I found to be genuinely masterful, one of which involves Christain entering this apartment complex in search of the unknown thief. I couldn’t help but be impressed by the amount of tension Östlund was able to generate from this sequence. The slow-moving camera work and the ominous sounds from within the apartments made the scene so immersive and intense. The other standout scene involves an actor at an elite dinner party who commits very hard to his learned persona. It was an incredibly purposeful and gripping sequence that effectively reinforces one of the major themes of the film, which is how humans in modern society lack the empathy and kindness needed to help others in the face of danger.


Unfortunately, The Square starts to fall apart during the third act. For a movie as smart as this, it can get unnecessarily heavy-handed with some of its messages. Certain things should’ve been wrapped up in more thought-provoking and ambiguous ways. In addition to this, it sometimes feels as if Östlund is trying to cram too many ideas into one film, and as a result, doesn’t flesh them out as much as they could have been.

I loved what the movie says about society’s lack of compassion for fellow humans and that felt like a fully realized thread throughout the entire film, but there were certain aspects of how the film dealt with class and the state of modern art that left something to be desired. The class commentary ties into the storyline involving the thief, and that storyline wraps up in a very silly and straightforward way that I obviously won’t spoil. The movie also has a lot to say about society's reliance on controversy as a way of marketing art, which is mainly shown through a commercial two of the characters make for this new exhibit. I found people's reactions to it to be unrealistic and as a result, the message doesn’t quite land.


That being said, the few gripes I have don’t take away from all the greatness it has to offer. Its runtime is 151 minutes, yet I was never bored. And, like all of Östlund’s films, The Square looks and sounds beautiful, so it's still worth a watch.


Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness, Östlund’s second Palme d’Or winner, has more in common with The Square than it does Force Majeure, given that his most recent release is also very funny, very ambitious, and very unsubtle about its themes. However, what makes Triangle of Sadness work so well, and in many ways better than The Square, is that its tone is considerably more absurd and silly.


The movie is split into three parts, the first of which is significantly shorter than the others. The first part revolves around supermodels Carl and Yaya and the early stages of their romantic relationship. They get into a big argument about paying the dinner bill, which establishes their relationship as a rocky one. It’s a brief but compelling way to start off the film.

The audience is then thrust into the second part of the film which takes place on a 250-million-dollar luxury yacht. This was by far in a way my favorite act of the film and has some of the funniest sequences I’ve seen all year, specifically the scene involving a lot of disgusting bodily fluids (you know the one). That whole section is so hellish and disgusting.


We’re also treated to arguments between Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), a Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher-quoting Russian capitalist, and the Captain (Woody Harrelson), a cheeseburger-eating, American communist. Just the mere idea of these two characters going back and forth is hilarious. There’s also something beautifully crass about the film’s humor, especially for a film as acclaimed as this one. It makes the movie uniquely unpretentious in a way that none of Östlund’s other films are.

The third part of the film takes place on an island as these prestigious people try to survive with no resources or common sense. I absolutely love what they did with the character Abigail (Dolly de Leon), who was a room attendant on the ship. Her importance in the third act was surprising but welcomed. Unfortunately, the final section is also where I started feeling the weight of the runtime.


I wish there was perhaps a bit more consistency in the pacing of the film, given the most memorable and highest-energy sequences are in the second act. The third act starts off with some momentum, but you can feel the film losing steam as it reaches its conclusion. That being said, I still found the last portion to be highly enjoyable and I adore what the film did with its characters.

I’m glad Östlund ventured into obvious comedy for his latest film because he clearly has a distinct voice in that genre. His latest satire is incredibly refreshing, blending high-brow satire with low-brow humor. Each shot is perfectly captured, my favorite of which involves a flair on the island, and the film has many characters, all of which were interesting to see evolve throughout the story.


Triangle of Sadness is now showing at the Athena Cinema.


-Oliver

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