Cannes 2017: A Good Year For Sweden

Ruben Oslund’s feature “The Square” walked away with the Cannes 2017 Palme D’Or.

It was a good year for Sweden – as far as the Cannes 2017 film festival was concerned.  Six films were proud representatives of Sweden – with Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” ultimately walking away with Cannes highest honor – the Palme D’Or.  Earlier in the fest, the Swedish Film Council shined a spotlight on the countries entries into the 2017 fest, including shorts “The Burden” and “Push It,”  feature “The Square” and co-productions “Beauty and the Dogs,” “A Ciambra” and “Jupiter’s Moon.”  Present to discuss their concepts and productions were the directing and producing teams for “Push It’’, “The Burden” and “The Square.”

Julia Thelin, along with producers Eliza Jones and Markus Walta, explained they focused the shot list of “Push It” in one prime setting – a gymnasium – to maximize the visual story telling for the production. “Push It” follows the story of Hedda, a woman with extreme potential who, for some reason, is doomed to fail.  Somewhat shy and short on words, Thelin explained her film was meant to explore social structures, physicality, identity and emotions.

“I am (like the character in “Push It”) – it is a story about a girl who isn’t supposed to win, but here I am at Cannes, and I am a woman,” said Thelin.  “I’m just so excited to be competing.”

An animator by trade, Niki Lindroth von Bahr was thrilled her labor of love short, “The Burden”, was featured in the Directors’ Fortnight Short Films competition.  Ultimately receiving a Illy Prize nomination at the fest, “The Burden” is a stop-motion, apocalyptic musical that places its characters in four very average and non-descript settings: a super market, a call center, a long-term hotel and a hamburger joint. Oh, and the characters are all animals.  The concept for von Bahr’s film arose after thinking about placing a “Gene Kelley-esque musical number in a boring, generic setting.”  As she thought about the stories behind the workers toiling in this facilities, she contemplated musical numbers that would suit their lifestyles.

“What would they sing about if they were in a musical?” von Bahr said, referring to the darker themes that are woven into the song and dance numbers.

Fascinated by people’s fondness for animals, the characters von Bahr chose to feature in “The Burden” are those creatures that receive the least amount of public affection: animals used in medical experiments.  Despite the tedious nature of stop-motion, especially in a highly technical form of completing elaborate dance numbers, von Bahr choose to use plasticine characters because she feels “looking at puppets is oddly comforting.”   Her greatest challenge came in making the rigid bodies of her characters look graceful in the choreography, specifically working through the challenges of calculating the movements one frame at a time.

Flanked by producer Erik Hemmendorff and lead actor Claes Bang, “The Square” director Ostlund was excited to mark his fourth appearance in competition at Cannes.  His first visit, in 2008 for “Involuntary” was followed by a “Coup de Coeur” win for “Play” in 2011.   While his 2014 film “Force Majeure” received no award, it did sustain major attention, eventually receiving a BAFTA and Golden Globe nomination.

Wasting no time after completing “Force Majeure,” Ostlund immediately began writing the script for “The Square.”  While the concept of the film springs from the Swedish term “Kulturmannen” – the general concept can be found in most all cultures.  Loosely translated, a “Kulturmannen” is a man of culture.  However, this type of man is caddish, a misogamist, self-indulgent in opinion and unrefined, despite his refined place in society.  Bang plays Christian, the Kulturmannen in question, whose overseeing the promotion of an art installation.  With his phone stolen, he settles on a PR film to promote the installation, resulting in things going awry.

Loosely basing the story off an installation he created with Kalle Borman for the Vandalorum Museum in 2014, Ostlund began pitching his concept to friends.  The feedback he received greatly informed his handling of the script.

“My mother was a painter and she always asked me for my opinions,” said Ostlund.  “I use this when I am creating: I learned through pitching.  I obtain the direction (for my story) from the feedback I observe during the discussions about my idea.”

Ostlund also paid extremely close attention during the casting process of “The Square.”  For example, in a room that required 300 extras for a museum dinner function, Ostlund spent hours looking for the best individuals to bring in for the background.  He wanted to ensure the people knew exactly how to behave at that type of function.

“I needed to get the proper behaviors to get the authenticity,” said Ostlund.