THE SQUARE. Starring: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss, and Terry Notary. Directed by Ruben Östlund. Rated MA15+. Strong coarse language. 151 min.
This Swedish, subtitled drama (with intermittent English dialogue) tells the story of events surrounding an art exhibition. The movie won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 for its Director, Ruben Östlund. The Art Gallery featured in the film is a fictional version of Sweden’s Stockholm Palace, and Östlund was the Director who gave us the dramatically impressive, “Force Majeure” (2013).
Christian (Claes Bang) is chief art curator of a contemporary, prestigious Stockholm museum. He is much respected as a Curator, and known to be a supporter of unusual art causes. Christian himself, though, is prone at times to rhetorical exaggeration and can look slickly pretentious. In his position, he establishes a controversial new exhibit in his museum which arouses a great deal of public comment. He presents the public with a relational-art exhibition called “The Square”. The exhibition invites people to experience themselves as responsible fellow human beings. The installation itself is an actual square in the museum that is meant to be “a sanctuary of trust and caring”. It is intended to lay bare the hypocrisy that lies within Society. Once entered, “The Square” grants the occupant the compassion of all passers-by - which, of course, it can’t.
Christian’s personal life doesn’t match the ideals of The Square. The theft of his i-phone, wallet and cuff-links, while walking in the street outside, draws him into situations, where he fails to fill The Square’s utopian vision of goodness. While his shameful acts to retrieve his phone unfold, the museum’s marketing arm creates a publicity campaign for his avant-garde installation which sends Christian personally, and his Museum, deep into crisis mode. His Museum, without his permission, released a poorly judged marketing video showing a young child inside The Square being blown up to demonstrate the power of compassion.
Rather than debate how trust and caring can be achieved, the movie focuses on troubling, difficult questions, that aren’t easy to answer, but are very important ones to consider. To what extent does political correctness substitute for human empathy? Are there limits to freedom of expression? And how should we respond to the words “sorry” and “help me” when they are used manipulatively? One of the film’s provocative scenes shows a performer (Terry Notary) at a formal black-tie, donor-event, who plays a dangerous ape, and lets his character get out of control. Frozen by the need for political correctness, and pushed to the limits of tolerance, the dinner guests change from passivity to violence and start behaving like animals themselves. Humanity shifts, because no-one knows how to behave decently in the situation. Elsewhere, the movie glides past beggars and homeless people in the streets, asking the viewer for some response.
The film is a biting satire of the cultural elite of Stockholm and depicts the divisions that divide an artistic community. Its sweep is wide. It tackles inequality, social alienation, and global capitalism, and satirises art, cultural taste, sex, and money. It confronts gender abuse, poverty, and class privilege and does so through shock tactics that catch viewers off guard by exposing them to comedy routines. For instance, Christian’s nervous sexual engagement with an American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) - exposing both desire and tension that results in bickering - is contrasted with the dynamics of staff meetings at his own Art Museum. The visual situations depicted in the movie frequently cloak human aberrations and miseries that lie imbedded in them. This is a movie that attacks hypocrisy and artistic pretension (some to soulful renditions of “Ave Maria”), and confronts them head-on in a comic way.
Modern Art frequently aims to make people uncomfortable, and this movie successfully pursues that goal. It provides its comedy hilariously, but darkly. Essentially, it is a highly inventive satire about the weaknesses of high Society, and it often targets people in humiliating situations. In doing that, though, it chips away creatively at the comforts and pretentiousness of contemporary society, and it does so by engaging us brilliantly in what it shows us, and in what it says.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
March 1st., 2018