The Square


Early on in The Square, the protagonist of Ruben Östlund’s satirical paw-swipe at the contemporary art world intervenes in a street brawl. This is not the usual shape of Stockholm gallery curator Christian Neilson’s day, but en route to work he’s compelled to help a distraught woman when it becomes clear none of the other passersby will back up the man who has instinctively leapt to her defence. Christian, who’s played by the Danish actor Claes Bang, dithers a lot before committing to the situation, but the moment he does, he feels thoroughly invigorated — the endorphin high from the confrontation boosted by the pride he clearly feels at having fulfilled some kind of primal masculine ideal of himself as the male protector. Then comes the sucker punch. Seconds later, he realises it was all a ruse. In the midst of this contretemps he’s been relieved of his phone, his wallet, even his cufflinks. No good deed goes unpunished.

Fans of Östlund’s previous comedy of manners, Force Majeure (2013), will recognise this scenario as a neat inversion of the masculinity-threatening act of cowardice that afflicted that movie’s protagonist (it involved a man temporarily abandoning his family in the face of an impending avalanche). In The Square, though, it’s Christian’s humiliating realisation that he was a mark not a “man” that sets him on his own somewhat ruinous path. Putting into play a mischievous plan to retrieve his phone, he hand-delivers a threatening letter to every flat in the block of low-income housing to which he’s online-tracked his phone — a spectacularly ill-conceived course of action that gets Christian more than he bargained for when one of the accused residents starts making demands of him in return.

If this sounds like a spin on the kind malevolent-yet-banal plot device one might expect to find in a Michael Haneke film — the anonymous surveillance tapes in Hidden (Dir. Michael Haneke, 2005) spring immediately to mind — Östlund is similarly interested in holding a mirror up to the rarefied world of his characters in order to make arthouse audiences squirm in recognition. He’s less of a cinematic sadist, though. In exploring the disconnection between the art scene’s lofty ideals and the world it claims to represent, The Square — which won the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes film festival — sees Östlund adopt a mode of knowing irony to skewer his targets, frequently juxtaposing shots of homeless people with scenes of self-regarding artists and their patrons debating the social value of their own work.

The film also scores some easy laughs by picking at some pretty low-hanging fruit. Östlund is guilty of trotting out an emperor’s new clothes view of modern art by mocking the impenetrability of exhibition catalogues and showing cleaners carelessly hoovering up part of an installation made from piles of gravel. Then again, these things are also drawn from real life. The catalogue text cited by Elizabeth Moss’s journalist when she’s interviewing Christian at the beginning of the film is taken verbatim from copy written by a fine art professor Östlund knows at the University of Gothenburg.[1] There are also numerous news stories of cleaners accidentally damaging installations thinking they’re literally rubbish.[2] Even the film’s titular artwork, a square of light designed to function as a “a sanctuary of trust and understanding” for anyone who stands within its boundaries, is based on an actual installation Östlund himself displayed in his native Sweden.[3] If the art world is beyond satire, The Square is perhaps the natural cinematic response: a film in which everything becomes a piece of performance art.

The aforementioned robbery, for instance, is pure theatre, as is Christian’s response. Supposedly off-the-cuff speeches are revealed to be rehearsed and scripted while the fall-out from a one-night stand is played out with such conviction in a gallery space the argument could be part of the work on display. Elsewhere, there’s a cringe-worthy moment when a Tourette’s sufferer interrupts an onstage interview with a pyjama-wearing artist called Julian — a clear nod to Julian Schnabel (he’s played by Dominic West). An awkward hush ensues as everyone tries to figure out if the disruption is genuine or a stage-managed provocation. The Square itself become the subject of a huge backlash when an insensitive PR campaign goes viral causing social media to explode with its own campaign of affected outrage. Then there’s the never-explained presence of an orang-utan in another character’s apartment, which is echoed by the film’s pièce de résistance: a live performance by a simian-aping artist (played by motion-capture actor and choreographer Terry Notary) that turns violent when his commitment to his work transforms a posh benefit dinner into a bourgeoise riff on the Milgram and Stanford Prison experiments.

All through The Square people are shown straying from ideals they publicly endorse the moment real life — with all its messy contradictions and unpredictable elements — impinges on their bubble-like existence. Confusing it all with art has simply become another coping strategy.

 

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman.

 

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[1] Jonathan Romney, ‘Playing to the Gallery’, Sight & Sound, April 2018, p 41.

[2] Helen Pidd, Overzealous cleaner ruins £690,000 artwork that she thought was dirty, The Guardian, 3 November 2011: https://www.theguardian.com/ar...; Rebecca Rose, Cleaning Lady Tosses Art Worth $13K Because She Thought It Was Trash, Jezebel, 21 February 2014 https://jezebel.com/cleaning-l...

[3] Xan Brooks, ‘Ruben Östlund: “All my films are about people trying to avoid losing face”’, The Observer, 11 March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/fi...


All Monday to Friday shows before 5pm have capacity capped at 50% (unless otherwise stated). All other screenings have full unlimited seating capacity (unless otherwise stated).

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