Ruben Östlund: “I like films that set us free”

Appreciated for his caustic humor and his revolutionary films, Ruben Östlund is a virtuoso and fearsome dialogue writer who likes to break down the preconceived ideas that people may have on all subjects. His latest film Triangle of sadness “without filter”, awarded at the last Cannes festival and released in European cinemas at the end of September, is a burlesque film which aims to dismantle capitalist hierarchies. A brilliant film whose concept is disturbing and where the Swedish director denounces the loss of meaning in modern societies, at a time when social-democratic Sweden is shifting towards the far right. Confidences of a freed filmmaker who refuses to fit into the mould.

You hosted a Masterclass for the first time at the Marrakech festival. What advice would you give to young directors who want to embark on this path?

I would tell young people to always film what they want and talk about what really interests them. In fact, you should never lose sight of or forget what interests you in the first place. For my part, I have always loved skiing since I was little, and so I started making films that revolve around skiing, I spent hours filming my passion and my hobby, and I really had a blast. The most important thing in our job is not to make films just to make films! You have to make films on subjects that interest you, communicate on issues that speak to you and affect you because the public will feel it.

Swedish filmmaker and king of provocative Ruben Östlund hosted a masterclass for the first time at the 19th edition of the Marrakech Film Festival.

Swedish filmmaker and king of provocative Ruben Östlund hosted a masterclass for the first time at the 19th edition of the Marrakech Film Festival.

You excel in the art of provocation. It has become a bit of your trademark, is it something that haunts you from the writing of the screenplay?

In fact, I believe that it is above all the fact of being irritated by something or an experience that I have lived that pushes me to make a film to provoke reflection afterwards. Suddenly, when I don’t agree with an idea or a social phenomenon that exasperates me, I try to provoke people around this theme. We see this very well in “Force majeure” (Snow therapy, 2015), it was interesting to see how a father will abandon his wife and children in the event of a crisis to take shelter from an avalanche that s falls on the terrace of a ski resort. It’s a film that follows the consequences of an incident on the cohesion of a family, wondering what our best principles and values ​​are worth in the event of force majeure.

I’ve always been interested in filming characters breaking down after an incident and showing different sides of each character in a crisis. In my film “Without Filter” for example, I talk about beauty and sexuality that have become common currency in our individualistic societies. It is also a film about the ravages of domination where we see a young man using his beauty and his sexuality to seduce a woman and improve his standard of living in society. It’s a bit like the concept of beauty and sexuality as a market value and the Internet as a social elevator (power of influencers).

Finally, I would say that since I made “Force Majeure”, my objective was to combine the best of American cinema, where you touch the public, with European cinema, where you discuss society and where you provoke thoughts. And I think that really interests the public.

Most of the time, do you like to push your characters to the limit to see how they will react and reveal their true background?


Yes, I’m interested in situations where my characters fail, at least, compared to what society expects of them, and I also like situations where I can identify with the losers. In fact, I tell myself that I could have reacted in this way, precisely because the critical situation was what it was. And I think that’s why you push your characters and corner them, to surround them.

British actor Jeremy Irons said in his masterclass that “Art should disturb, otherwise it’s not art”. Is it an idea that you share?

Yes, completely. Culture is one thing, Art is another, because eventually it can become culture, and so if you say something that others are already saying, it’s just repetition. And yes, he is completely right.

“To sell cinema, you have to create an event around it to interest the public and encourage them to go to the cinemas”

You have already said that you seek through your films to improve society. How?

I would not say that I seek to do this but I believe that it comes from the fact that my mother was a teacher, my father too, both were politically involved in the movement of the 60s. My mother is still devoted to the leftist current (communist ), we always talked about politics in the family, my brother became a right-wing conservative, rather liberal. And at each family reunion, we have endless debates, sometimes very violent… and always very funny. And for me, it’s almost obvious to make films while trying to titillate the convictions of society, in fact, I try in my own way to improve the things that seem absurd to me, … it’s which makes me happier and brings me more happiness in my life.

“All movies change the world”

Do you think that art and cinema in particular have the power to change things?

Completely. It is an irrefutable fact that they change things. Otherwise, the ads would not work. So films, communication change the world, they change our way of seeing things, our vision of the world, and how we behave. The problem is that all films change the world, a film like “Top Gun: Maverick” changed the world, much more than art films. Films have been used for years as a kind of propaganda to change our perception of WWII. Moreover, during the 1960s, the Americans made a lot of films about the Battle of Normandy and years later, all the history books and textbooks spoke of the Allies and the Battle of Normandy, as a major event in our history. So it’s obvious that films change the world, the important thing is to fight to attract attention and shed light on the ideas you defend and make the films you believe in, works that will tell the real stories about the world and humanity.

How do you choose your actors?

I improvise a lot to choose my actors and it served me for my last film in the sequence where the man has to pay the bill… In fact, I played almost all the characters in the film before, improvising with different actors that I met, men or women.

For this film, we were on tour, in Moscow, Berlin, London, USA, Paris, Manila in the Philippines, and my goal was to create a Real Madrid with the actors and create a great ensemble piece, with the best situation in the world.

So, you’re more the kind of director who leaves the freedom to his actors to improvise?

In fact, I improvise with the actors when I write, that’s why I like being part of the cast, because when I improvise situations, I find wonderful ideas, and therefore, I integrate them into the script.

When you start filming, of course you have precise ideas with well-crafted dialogue, but I’ve always thought that improvisation is a part of writing. That being said, I don’t like to improvise in the middle of filming because there are certain parameters that have to be mastered, such as the movement of the actors for example, … otherwise, it sounds wrong.

“I am interested in situations where my characters fail and often identify with the losers”

You have always opted for long sequences. Why ? Is it for more realism, to have more impact?

I want to push the scene as far as possible, I would say most of the scenes in “Triangle of sadness” are very long, and you have to take the back groud into consideration, and of course the rendering is just spectacular. When you’re editing, usually you can make mistakes with the backgrounds if you’re not careful, but when you have a big scene of course, it’s impressive.

You know, I’ve always thought that you get the essence of the scene when you use long sequences and the rendering is very sophisticated.

You won two palmes d’or at Cannes. Are things easier for you as a director?

You know, I always aimed to be in the competition at Cannes. So, when you win the first Palme d’Or, you have a lot of pressure, when you win the second, the pressure dissipates and you start dreaming of the 3rd. When I won the 1st time, I thought it would never happen again, but when I won the 2nd, I started dreaming of the 3rd because otherwise, you risk falling into oblivion and you won’t be nobody in the film industry anymore, and that’s a worthwhile goal in itself!

What kind of movies do you like to see?

I like movies that make us free, and not movies where from the first five minutes you understand everything and already know how it’s going to end. I like films that are going to surprise me in a very skillful way, I love Michael Haneke films, every image he produces, it feels like it’s the most important image he doesn’t. has ever done, and then there is so much suspense in his films. I also like the American Kelly Richard (James Richard Kelly): “First cow”, I find it fantastic, Léos Carax is probably one of the most talented directors today. I also admire Paolo Sorrentino, he is a free director who is not afraid to put forward his own convictions in his films.

“I’ve always been interested in filming characters breaking down after an incident and showing different sides of each character in a crisis.”

What do you think of platforms like Netflix, Amazon… Are they a threat to the future of cinema?

Not at all. The sole purpose of cinema is to see a film together and be physically under the same roof. In Sweden, what we see together today is the Eurovision Song Contest, and sometimes football. Cinema professionals must realize that it is now necessary to create an event for the release of each film, otherwise no one would go to theaters to see it. This is why I suggested to the Swedish Film Institute that films which have received state subsidies should go on tour to meet the public and encourage them to travel so that they come see the movie. You know, we have more than 400 events a year in Sweden alone, and that’s how we can sell cinema, we have to create an event around it to interest the public and encourage them to come to come and discover your work.

With “Triangle of Sadness”, I embarked on a theatrical distribution strategy even though the market has not fully recovered from the pandemic. The film began its global rollout in theaters at the end of September and has so far grossed around $11 million, with many more markets to launch.

Your projects ?

I’m currently developing ‘The Entertainment System is Down’, a comedy set aboard a long-haul flight and inspired by Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel ‘Brave New World’. The comedy will explore the erratic behaviors of passengers when they don’t have a screen to watch.

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Ruben Östlund: “I like films that set us free”