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The Stanley Kubrick scene that inspired Ruben Östlund's 'The Square'

@Russellisation

For the Swedish Ruben Östlund there is no better subject than that of the intricacies of the human mind, with the filmmaker constantly probing the careful layers of the psyche that are constantly manipulated by the world around us.

With a consistent focus on fragile, lost characters on the brink of personal meltdown, the cinema of Östlund squirms with 21st-century angst. Whilst this awkwardness can come from the result of one’s own pride, such as in the protagonist of 2014s Force Majeure who refuses to acknowledge his failures as a father, 2011s Play also demonstrated how these emotions can be manipulated by others, forcing you to act out of character. 

As the Swedish writer and director told The Guardian back in 2018, “All my films are about people trying to avoid losing face,” with the Palme d’Or winning satire of the art world, The Square, proving this beyond doubt. Part of a select elite of filmmakers who have won the prestigious Cannes award on two occasions, Östlund is the most recipient of the honour, taking home the trophy in 2022 for his film Triangle of Sadness.

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Though he doesn’t come from a film history background, starting his career making skiing movies, Östlund has since become a purveyor of the craft, looking to classic films from the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Luis Buñuel and Stanley Kubrick. 

Picking out his top ten Criterion movies in conversation with the company themselves, Östlund even noted Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1975 film Barry Lyndon as one of his all time favourites, naming a single in particular scene that had a direct impact on his Palme d’Or winning film.

“It’s quite interesting how a film like this can work so well,” Östlund said of Kubrick’s film that tells the story of an Irish rogue who assumes the identity of a dead aristocrat in 18th-century England. Continuing he adds, “The acting style is so uptight, but Kubrick creates such curiosity for the images and the structure and the narrative—I don’t know how he did it. I’ve rewatched it many times”. 

After having clarified his love for the classic period piece, Östlund goes on to explain how one scene directly influenced the memorable monkey imitation scene in The Square.

“A boy is taking his kid brother into the room where his mom is playing the cembalo,” Östlund says, describing the 1975 movie, “He’s wearing these wooden shoes, violating the strict etiquette of the room, and they start to fight. They actually used handheld cameras for that scene”. 

Indeed, the influential scene in The Square certainly takes inspiration from Kubrick, with the moment in Barry Lyndon being mirrored when an artist, pulling off a staggering impression of a gorilla, begins to bound across a packed dining hall, leaping on top of the tables on all fours, disrupting the status quo. 

The guests save face believing it is all part of the performance, and it is, or is it? The lines are blurred when the dedicated performer taunts a woman and drags her to the floor, a moment that undoubtedly goes too far, despite the majority of the room waiting till the very last minute to do something about it. 

Not wanting to be the one to ‘break the performance’, each of the diners is complicit in their middle-class wish for assimilation, they don’t want to ruin the ‘art’. They don’t want to rock the boat. 

Take a look at the scene from Östlund’s satirical drama, below.