Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Cinematographer: Fredrik Wenzel
Producer: Erik Hemmendorff and Philippe Bober
by Jon Cvack
I nearly missed The Square in theater, only brought back to a local chain when the Oscars noms were announced and it returned for a week prior to the big show. I had loved Force Majeure (2014), best described by my buddy as Michael Haneke 2.0. The best art is that which is difficult to put into words and it was both Force Majeure and The Square that I struggle with the exact issue; from a macro perspective, both films seem so easy to categorize. One’s about an avalanche at a ski resort that traps everyone inside and a family struggles with the situation. The Square takes place at a contemporary art museum, and while I was nervous it’d offer a simple satire of the destination, instead discovered a profound insight into the nature of art while keeping each character grounded in reality rather than serving as caricatures.
The Square involves an art curator at the contemporary X-Royal art museum named Christian (Claes Bang) who wakes up hungover in his office, about to be interviewed for a new exhibition by the American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss). After, Christian is walking the city streets when a frantic woman sprints up to him and a neighboring stranger, begging for help; in which a crazed boyfriend then comes running up to the men screaming, looking like he’s about to attack when he slows down and the girl thanks them and moments later Christian realizes that his wallet, phone, and watch have all been taken. The frantic act was a con.
Thanks to “Where’s my iPhone?’, Christian is able to track the thief, discovering they live in one of the local projects. Christian recruits a low-level assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) to help him, who suggests that Christian print out a bunch of letters explaining how badly he needs the phone, leaving the address to mail the package, and insert the fliers into all the mail slots at each apartment of the building. So carries out one of the movie’s most hilarious scenes as the pair head to the building in Christian’s fully loaded Tesla, listening to Justice on the way, where Christian hopes for his assistant (a black man) to head inside as Christian (a white man) just doesn’t fit in with the area. The assistant refuses and immediately the buddy-buddy ruse shifts into an awkward castigation from Christian who believes his authoritative position should exempt him from having to go inside.
The plan works and the next day, a package is shipped to a nearby 7/11, including Christian’s phone and wallet. However, a young adolescent boy accosts Christian, saying his parents believe he is the thief, demanding Christian apologize to his family under threat of causing “chaos” to Christian’s life. Christian ignores the warning, and soon the boy begins stalking him.
Amidst all this Christian is trying to manage the opening of a new exhibition, called The Square and represented by a 5x5 foot or so square shaped exhibit displayed both inside and outside the building with the slogan, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” This is in addition to sleeping with Anne, who lives with a Chimpanzee, and might have kept a condom with Christian’s semen, later saying she was hoping for something more from their relationship and hope to get herself pregnant.
When writing this out, each individual fragment might sound far from original; an awkward sexual encounter between a man and woman, both wanting different things; a man trying to deal with the absurdities of his professional environment; or the buddy scene where two friends get involved with a situation that spirals out of control. However, it’s Ruben Östlund’s ability to add an extraordinary amount of depth to each of these more straightforward moments that allow the content to fully shine. Rather than having an awkward post-coital moment, Östlund adds a chimpanzee to the scene, never having any of the characters address it; rather than allowing the buddy scene operate at such a high velocity of feel-good fun and adrenaline, he has Christian reveal his true - and potentially bigoted - identity; rather than having Anne and Christian have an awkward conversation expressing what they each hoped to get from the relationship, there’s a fascinating art exhibit behind them which takes about half of the conversation to fully understand (there’re chairs stacked at about twenty-five feet in the air, swaying, and every so often we hear them crash to the floor), allowing the conversation to become all the more absurd. Each scene has a richness of depth that only numerous repeated viewings could possibly lead to discovering all of the details.
However, this is all intercut with one of the film’s best subplots in having a couple of young Gen-Z/borderline millennial digital media consultants devise a marketing plan for the new exhibit. They’re aware of how competitive the endeavor actually is, knowing that the most effective piece of marketing is for them to create a viral piece of content. However, in the middle of pitching a video idea about a young blonde child standing outside the museum who \ gets blown up by a terrorist, Christian enters into the office frantic about his phone, agreeing to the absurd idea, which soon causes an international firestorm when the macabre video showing a child getting killed does, in fact, go viral across YouTube, causing the museum to have to take immediate action; leading to a fascinating question about the role of censorship in art.
In the end, you’re left wondering what The Square means - if anything. In preparation, Östlund had actually built a low budget version of the same exhibit. The slogan is so simple and ambiguous, in which I’m unsure whether it translates poorly, or that the gross simplicity is the exact point. In one exhibit - created both in pre-pro and in the movie - a patron is meant to select between two options: trusting people and not trusting people, with the former leading them to a room where they’re to leave their phones on the ground while they explore the rest of the exhibit. In the best scene of the film (arguably the best scene of the year) a man who’s able to embody the volatile and violent temperament of an ape performs during a fundraiser with some of Stockholm’s wealthiest, in which the performer goes to the extreme, transcending any form of humanity and embodying the animal’s aggressive spirit; going so far as to attack others.
In the end, we learn that although the place is calling The Square a place of “trust and caring” and allowing everyone to share “equal rights and obligations” it too has its limits which contradict that premise. What happens when an artist wants to create material that’ll offend people to the point of violence? What happens if a performer so embodies his role that he’s willing to scare or even hurt others? What is the line between respectable art and trash? The easy answer is that art should avoid harming others, but then you wonder about art such as Triumph of the Will and its long term propagandizing of Nazis and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and what it did to shed light on slavery, and the vast amount of violence which resulted from both; whether justifiable or horrendous. This isn’t to make a value judgment on these pieces so much as demonstrate that even seemingly innocuous pieces can produce harmful results. As frightening as the ape-man is, it also seems like negligence in failing to understand the extent of the act, and the same goes for the video that Christian greenlit without knowing the idea’s full extent.
Then again, the phrase seems facile and empty; no different than the piles of shredded paper exhibit that the patrons avoid, failing to understand the point. With such an ambiguous phrase, it becomes essentially meaningless. Then again, maybe it’s only within The Square where such an idealistic philosophy could even exist. Such subtle ambiguity is the making of any great art and The Square is hands down one of the most fascinating films of the year.
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