TORONTO — Danish actor Claes Bang is as unfamiliar to American audiences, for now at least, as Elisabeth Moss is recognizable. Pairing them in Swedish provocateur Ruben Östlund’s art-world satire “The Square” is one of many intriguing touches in a movie that defies categorization.
“The Square,” which opens Friday, is Östlund’s follow-up to his critically lauded dark comedy “Force Majeure” (2014), in which a man flees an avalanche at a ski resort, leaving his wife and kids behind, then sees his life spiral out of control. In “The Square,” winner of the Palm d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Bang plays Christian, the debonair curator of a sleek contemporary art museum in Stockholm. As he prepares to launch the titular conceptual installation, he gets mugged in the museum’s square and his cellphone is stolen. An impulsive act of retaliation goes terribly wrong; he hooks up with American journalist Anne (Moss) who for no apparent reason lives with a chimpanzee; and a public relations gaffe causes the high-minded exhibition to go badly awry, all of which throws Christian into a black hole of self-doubt about his bourgeois privilege and professional standing.
The swarthy, 6-foot-4 Bang, a stage star in Denmark and a ringer for a young James Mason, was eager to work with Östlund and auditioned vigorously for the role.
“I’d seen ‘Force Majeure,’ so when the casting director phoned me, I said, ‘Yes, I want to come in,’ obviously. It’s a part any actor would kill his family to get. But I was dead sure I would not get it because [Östlund] could get anyone in the world to do it,” Bang said in at interview at the recent Toronto International Film Festival.
As a fan of “Force Majeure,” Moss also jumped at the chance to work with Östlund; her audition process involved hours of improvisation. It didn’t matter that most of the film would be in Swedish.
“He didn’t necessarily want an American. I auditioned before Claes was cast so maybe they thought we’d be good together,” says the actress, who recently picked up an Emmy for “The Handmaid’s Tale.” “Christian was a more important role to cast, obviously, so it was maybe about who would go well with him. British actors, Danish actors, all auditioned. It was not specific; we just knew he was open to hiring an English-speaking actor in a film that wasn’t in English.”
Moss may not have as much screen time as Bang but they do share a pivotal sex scene that’s trademark Östlund. It mixes slapstick and cringing discomfort as Anne and Christian, with the chimp in the next room, have rollicking, sweaty sex, then engage in a tug-of-war with a condom.
“We have so many different versions of that scene that you don’t see,” Moss says. “Nothing in the film was played for laughs; it is serious. It’s always about the situation and the truth of it.”
Her costar says he knew the sex scene was going to be awkwardly comic, “but it is much more funny than I even thought it would be. . . . [Östlund] toned it down, because we recorded stuff that was screwball comedy.”
Moss says she wasn’t concerned about the tonal tight-rope Östlund walked. “That’s the whole tone of the movie. If he did anything else, he would ruin his own film.”
Despite the festival circuit whirlwind, Moss hasn’t tired of talking about “The Square” because of the varied reactions to Östlund’s uniquely pointed commentary.
“It’s so interpretive, depending on who you are, what country you’re from, what your background is, the
ages of your children — all of that goes into what you think this movie is about. If you’re taken with the monkey, [then] you have a different perspective,” she says. “In a crazy way, [Östlund] puts these normal characters, these everymen, in outlandish, awkward circumstances and it’s hilarious.”