Art, privilege and discomfort: On Ruben Östlund’s The Square

This Palm d’Or winning film by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund takes its name from a fictional art exhibit in the courtyard of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm: a cordoned off square designed to provoke conversation about the horrors of modern society. On a plaque, the following statement lays out the artist’s intent:

“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.”

We see the exhibit being set up, the plaque being installed and then we cut to the title screen and back to a busy street where we see Christian—head curator at the aforementioned museum— ignoring people asking for money in the street. The juxtaposition is striking, and it sets the tone for a movie that not only satirizes the art world but skewers the upper crust of contemporary European society as well, doing both at a striding, assured pace and with a wicked sense of humor.    

Christian, played with spot-on obliviousness by Danish actor Claes Bang, is your typical, high class art aficionado; a fan of lofty ideals, but only in the abstract. He’s a stand-in for a certain circle of people; those that gave the movie the top prize at Cannes, and those who will make up the bulk of the film’s audience both in Cairo’s Panorama of the European Film and abroad.

In his day-to-day life, he enjoys his privileged existence, sticking to his cloistered bubble and avoiding any kind of meaningful interaction with anyone outside it. He becomes very animated in theoretical monologues about ethical dilemmas, but when faced with the real life counterparts of the same issues, he tries his best to sweep the situation under the rug, sidestepping messes he has no idea how to practically navigate. He’s not cold-hearted, just detached; a person who imbues art with more meaning than life itself, a state of distraction that can be applied to a large swath of society.

While the film may be rather insular, focusing on Christian and the art museum, it makes a microcosm of society out of it. It kicks off with an uncomfortably funny satire of the art world’s love for big words and jargon; a staple of homogeneous intellectual communities at large, and the steps they take—intentional or not—to keep the privileged in and everyone else out. Anne, a journalist (Elisabeth Moss)—obviously unused to academic art-speak but quite clearly seduced by the community’s glamour—reads out a dense, wordy passage from an exhibition catalog. She asks Christian for clarification, as the author behind the words, but he fumbles, taken aback by a question that an art world regular would never have asked at the risk of being branded as uncultured. He clearly can’t make much sense of the passage himself, and Moss’ priceless reaction really helps punctuate the absurdity of the situation

In fact, her role throughout the movie is a small but pivotal one. For all purposes, Anne is the wide-eyed American foil to Christian’s dashing, impeccably cultured Swede—even more so as they become romantically entangled—and Moss plays her with just the right combination of naïveté and stubbornness. She’s an outsider who nonetheless has access to the scene; a regular at the museum, openings, press-conferences and parties. In confrontations, she squares her shoulders, tilts her head back, and looks Christian dead straight in the eye, refusing to let him off the hook. And even when he sways her with an unsubtle stroke of her ego, she still rattles him. She’s not one of his community, yes, but on some level at least, she aspires to be.

Two groups that don’t share that level of mobility, though, are Sweden’s homeless and working-class populations, and it’s Christian’s interactions with them that underscore the societal issues raised by the eponymous art piece, shining a harsh light on its false hopes and empty platitudes. The Square may be a sanctuary of trust and caring designed to highlight the lack of both in today’s world, but how much of that can it do from the museum grounds? Christian belongs to a very elite world, but the values he believes in and promotes through the art he curates espouse equality for all. Yet while he seems at home running the museum, he’s far less comfortable when it comes, for example, to retrieving a stolen phone from a council estate, and dealing with its incensed residents. Although some of Christian’s actions may be badly thought out at best, you can’t help but empathize with the character on a deep level, and this attests to the strength of Bang’s performance. We all know people like him—we are people like him—and this knowledge has most of us squirming in our seats, unable to condone what he’s doing, but knowing that, put in the same situation, we’d probably react similarly.

Things get rather tough for Christian when this insularity and the tone-deafness it breeds test themselves in the world of social media and PR. Looking to promote the exhibit, the museum recruits a couple of young, digitally-savvy advertisers to bring The Square to the attention of a broad audience and not just the museum’s regular crowd. The concept and execution they present raise a number of pertinent questions about responsibility in advertising and the definition of ‘tasteful’ media. Is ‘cutting through the clutter’ something that can come at the expense of marginalized groups? Would an uproar against an advertisement seen as distasteful be considered a stifling of freedom of speech? When going viral becomes a goal in itself, does the end justify the means?

At almost two and a half hours long, the film takes its sweet time showcasing the choices people make in many different situations, poking fun at their seedy underbellies and ripping apart the current state of advertising and media with particular glee. But it is during The Square’s final act that things come to a head, momentarily forcing the smile to slide off viewers’ faces. It’s an act that uses a stunningly physical turn by Terry Notary (Hollywood’s most famous ape, known mostly for the Planet of the Apes franchise) to expose the hive effect that paralyzes people, and has them turn a blind eye to blatant violations and injustices out,of fear and self-preservation, in the name of politesse. Skirting the line between animal and human, his performance brings this community’s civil façade crashing down spectacularly, and provides the film with a dark climax that packs a serious punch.

The Square is a bold study of human selfishness and vulnerability, fully aware that the world today moves so fast, shouts so loud, and is unstable in a way that we haven’t witnessed in recent history. Out of the confusion comes a film that is cutting and hilarious, and while its insights aren’t exactly new, they’re uncompromisingly honest, making it an absolute must watch.

The Square screens on Thursday November 16 at 7 pm in Zamalek Cinema in the 10th Panorama of the European Film.

Yasmin Shehab 

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