THE SQUARE: First (Art) World Problems
Though not every element of The Square works, and frequently gets heavy-handed, it’s hard not to appreciate Ruben Östlund’s sense of humor.
When a film wins the grand prize at a major festival, it’s bound to be held to closer scrutiny. A jury of respected, sound-mind people (and, sometimes, general audiences) made the decision because they were passionate about it. They decided that, over everything else they’d seen, this one film deserved their highest honor. So when that film is released to the public, there are great expectations for it to deliver. It does not necessarily have to be a masterpiece, but it has to prove that its accolades are deserved. It has to somehow justify the hype and the buzz, because that one prestigious designation will be sure to fill more seats.
The Correct Decision?
Ruben Östlund’s The Square was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes last May over the likes of Robin Campillo’s AIDS drama BPM (Beats per Minute), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s excoriating Russian satire Loveless and Sofia Coppola’s atmospheric Southern Gothic The Beguiled. The latter three films received distinctions in other categories, so they did not walk away empty handed. The Square, however, triumphed above them all, and the question on people’s minds as it headed to other film festivals was: Was it the correct decision? The same question will be repeated again and again as the film hits theaters in the US and other international markets. It is an undeniable specter that haunt this film and all other future Palme winners. Was it the correct decision?
I do not propose to answer that question. Only time can tell whether this film will possess the longevity needed to be remembered and re-evaluated. I will say this, though: it’s an ambitious work that does not choose to aim low. In a sprawling two and a half hours, Östlund tackles everything from social inequality and immigration to technological dependency and the nearsighted pretentiousness of the contemporary art world. It possesses an all-encompassing quality that is sometimes unwieldy, sometimes bizarre, yet always amusing in the wryest ways.
Watching it, I could see why it appealed to this year’s Cannes jury: the social commentary it presents is irresistibly modern, and its modernity is not confined to Swedish society—or even the EU, for that matter. It can be seen and understood from all sides, in all corners of the world, because it’s fundamentally about human connections and the hypocrisies that we may not even realize we’re committing.
A Most Respectable Man
What unites the film’s variegated strands is the figure of Christian (Claes Bang), the dapper curator of a contemporary art museum whose public image is one of carefully pruned respectability. He strives to say the right things to the right people. He affects a highly-polished charisma, performing to the hilt for his patrons. He will even buy a homeless migrant food, because the gesture only adds to his credibility.
When he unveils The Square, the museum’s latest exhibit—a 4×4 meter luminescent square in the museum’s courtyard that forces passersby to honor the requests of those who stand inside it—his impeccable social performance begins to crumble. First, con artists rob him of his cellphone and wallet, compelling him to resort to extreme measures to have them returned. Then, he is forced to face the fallout of The Square’s disastrous marketing campaign, which deliberately courts controversy in an attempt to cash in on viral trends. With each new fly in the ointment comes a darker revelation about this well-coiffed do-gooder, and really all people like him: people who believe they are changing the world for the better, when in reality they are doing it to stoke their egos.
Hidden Irony, Open Satire
What is not immediately evident about The Square is how tongue-in-cheek Östlund can be, even in the smallest of details. For instance, in an opening scene, the museum’s statue of Charles XIV John of Sweden is rather clumsily dismantled in order to make room for The Square’s installation. The scene is soundtracked to the Yo-Yo Ma/Bobby McFerrin rendition of Bach/Gounod’s “Ave Maria,” and if one looks closely, one can see the inscription on the statue: “FOLKETS KÄRLEK MIN BELÖNING,” which translates to “THE LOVE OF THE PEOPLE IS MY REWARD” in English.
Watch the film the first time, and this all flies by your head. Revisit it, and it’s clear Östlund is having a ball, investing the scene with layers of irony. The X-Royal Museum is literally housed in an old castle, reclaiming and repurposing space that was once elite and exclusive and opening it to the masses. The statue of an old monarch, representing wealth and privilege, is removed to make way for what seems to be an exciting, edgy art installation that encourages social commingling. “Ave Maria” becomes a constant motif, hearkening back to an art of the past that has now been reinterpreted as a quirky ditty for today. And, of course, the statue’s inscription could serve as Christian’s personal motto.
Of course, things don’t work out the way they’re supposed to, which is Östlund’s point. The X-Royal Museum may have been reclaimed for the public, but the art it houses is gormless. One exhibit, for instance, is merely neat piles of gravel arranged in symmetrical rows, with a neon sign in the background stating “YOU HAVE NOTHING.” It’s a punchline because the public can’t access its meaning. Even The Square, for all its good intentions, seems almost like a parody. The plaque that accompanies it reads as follows: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” But what does that mean? Unsurprisingly, no one in the film is able to elaborate, because the vagueness of the statement is in itself an art: the art of prettified obfuscation.
As for the statue’s inscription, well, The Square quickly shows how much of a pipedream it really is. The love of the people only matters when you are truly an altruistic person. It only matters when that love is completely divested of self-serving subtext. Otherwise, it’s as hollow as the various cries for help that permeate the film’s soundscape. Christian comes to realize this too little, too late. By watching his film, Östlund hopes that we will know better—that we will look into ourselves and ask whether our charitable impulses really do come from a good place, or whether there’s not a touch of personal gain that taints them.
There’s Monkey Business Afoot
Unfortunately, The Square is not always subtle about its message, and that does take away from some of the fun. Elisabeth Moss’s character owns a bonobo who likes to draw, and I’m sure you can already infer the meaning behind it just by me telling you of its existence. Shots of the homeless are also interspersed throughout the narrative, which drums home the inequality narrative too conveniently. Square-like imagery is also deployed later in the film as deliberate points of juxtaposition with the art installation, such as the stairwell of Christian’s apartment building, for instance, or the square space on which Christian’s daughter performs a cheerleading routine. It’s too blatant a move on Östlund’s part, and it makes the film more didactic than it needs to be.
The film’s big set piece, which involves Terry Notary going full gorilla man in a performance art piece staged in a room full of suits and donors, is also surprisingly on-the-nose in its purpose—especially when Christian reveals the character’s name midway through. I won’t spoil it for you, of course, but from the way the scene plays out, it’s not hard to suss out its objective. I will say that it could have made a fantastic short film out of context, and Östlund’s framing of it is an impressive exercise in control and tempo. Watching it, your emotions quickly move from amusement, to second-hand embarrassment, to full-blown horror, and with less obvious intentions, it could have been a true showstopper.
Conclusion: The Square
Though not every element of The Square works, and though it frequently veers into heavy-handed territory, it’s hard not to at least appreciate Ruben Östlund’s sense of humor. It’s unconventional and, at times, startling, but it’s far from vapid. Because of it, the film flies by despite its hefty running time, and it has plenty of staying power to boot.
The fact that most people will be introduced to Claes Bang because of the film is also a big plus. I’d never heard of him myself, but after watching him here, I hope we see him in more projects. Fascinating even when he’s doing the most mundane tasks, the actor is one of the main reasons The Square works as a whole—and I have a feeling he’ll be getting many juicy offers once this film hits it big.
What are your favorite satires about the contemporary art world? Let us know in the comments below!
The Square received a limited release in the US on October 27th, and will open in the UK on March 16th, 2018. For more international release dates, click here.
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