How do you follow up The Handmaids Tale if you’re Elisabeth Moss? Apparently by joining the Swedish fine-arts community, living with a monkey, and engaging in some very sweaty sex, complete with a condom tug-of-war.
Moss doesn’t have a ton of screen time in her new Palme d’Or–winning Cannes movie The Square — Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s followup to 2014’s brilliant dark comedy Force Majeure — but boy, oh boy is that screen time weird. For one, her American journalist character, Anne, totally randomly has a monkey roommate. Why? “Why not?” Moss told me recently. “That’s literally been my answer. I can’t think of a reason why not.”
“Anything can happen in a movie when suddenly a monkey appears in an apartment,” Östlund explained (sort of) at a press conference earlier in the festival. “Every film should have a monkey in it in some way.”
To be fair, the movie is already pretty insane by the time we meet the monkey. Östlund loves trafficking in the discomfort of human fallibility, and in this case, has crafted a meditation on trust and morality wrapped in the story of a handsome, if vain, museum curator named Christian (Claes Bang), whose bourgeois life begins to unravel when he falls for an elaborate pick-pocket scheme and is stripped of his phone and wallet. Liberal worldview shattered, he sets out on the world’s weakest vigilante mission to retrieve his stuff, so he really needs a win by the time he and Moss’s Anne drunkenly stumble back to her place to get naked. And then … monkey. (According to Bang, Östlund’s motto for the film was, “Nobody is going to leave the set with any dignity today.”)
You can practically see the thoughts crossing Christian’s mind as he waits alone in Anne’s bedroom: Do I ask her about the monkey? Or will talking about the monkey hurt my chances of getting laid? Also, how drunk am I? Anne comes back in lingerie. He lets the monkey thing go.
“I love that we never actually refer to the monkey, which begs the question of, ‘Is it even real?’” says Moss. “Like, we never refer to it. I never speak to it. No one ever speaks to it. It’s never mentioned. So weird.” Moss’s character can later be seen leaving a phone message for Christian while the monkey (who in real life is French, half Bonobo, and named Pippu) casually applies lipstick to its own nose. But according to Moss, her friendship with the primate was all an illusion. “She never worked with the monkey,” Moss says. “The monkey had a high list of demands and requirements. Like, you couldn’t look her in the eye. You couldn’t speak to her, you couldn’t run, you couldn’t sing, you couldn’t do anything around this monkey, and I think the insurance company was like, ‘Let’s maybe not have them in the same room.’”
What makes the sex scene so special, besides the monkey — who we assume is hanging out in the next room and could burst in at any moment — is just how uncomfortably real it looks. Östlund insisted it be very sweaty and shot from each character’s POV, mid-coitus. Moss tells me she actually had to straddle her director of photographer, Fredrik Wenzel, and gyrate as he held the camera to get the right effect. Bang had to do the same thing, only with Fredrik straddling him.
And then, if that weren’t awkward enough, Östlund threw in a condom tug-of-war.
Meaning that, after Christian orgasms, Anne offers to throw away the condom and Christian — who, if you’ll remember, had recently been robbed and lost his faith in humanity — clutches the sperm-filled latex to his chest and refuses to let it go. She insists again. He refuses. She grabs on and pulls, then lets it go so it snaps back in his face. Does she have a turkey baster ready to go? It’s clear Christian suspects just that. It’s unclear if Anne is just fucking with him. “That was so fun and we have so many different versions of it that you don’t see,” Moss told me. “There was a version where he eats it. Ruben was like, ‘Put it in your mouth,’ and made me try to go get it out of his mouth. I think that Anne thinks that this is really fun. I think that she thinks that this is them connecting and having a really good time.”
Also a good time for Anne, though maybe not Christian, is the great scene where she stops by the museum to confront him about why he hasn’t called. “Ruben wanted me to keep repeating the words, ‘You were inside of me,’ because they make someone so uncomfortable. There were a lot of gestures, too, of being inside someone, that aren’t in the film. The whole idea was just to make him so uncomfortable, especially as a man.”
And to think, so many other directors and actors would have just stopped with the monkey.