To say that Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s film The Square is a bizarre work of art is a bit of an understatement. Juggling between comedy, drama, social, and political satire, Östlund masterfully delivers a film that has its audience laughing out loud mostly out of the awkwardness of the situation presented on screen, all while maintaining an absurdist tone throughout its staggering 150 minutes running time. The film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and is nominated for the Best Foreign Film in the upcoming Academy Awards.
The film revolves mainly around the life of a modern art museum curator named Christian (Claes Bang) who hires an advertising agency to promote the latest art installation attained by the museum. As the multi layers of The Square unfold, Christian’s life spirals out of control, beginning from his already turbulent relationship with a journalist, Anne (Elizabeth Moss), to his encounters with a young refugee boy that alters his bystander’s views on the political scene and the world around him, and eventually ending with the advertising agency’s extreme ideas that lead to catastrophic events endangering Christian’s tactically planned career and social status.
In the opening scene of the film, Christian is shown being interviewed by equal parts confused and amazed Anne. He discusses the concept of art, and the contemporary artworks showcased in his museum with such poise and confidence. He asks his interviewer whether placing her handbag in a corner of the museum would correspondingly turn it into a piece of art. A confused Elizabeth Moss asks “would it?”, Christian then takes a long pause as if he himself is not certain whether the bag would be considered art or not. With this tongue-in-cheek dialogue, accentuated by Claes Bang’s solid performance, Östlund sets the tone for one of the major themes of his film. What is art? And what makes art art? He pokes fun at contemporary art aficionados, suggesting that the real distinction that separates contemporary art from everyday objects is simply an elitist illusion, an emperor’s clothes sort of trick, that allows snobbish self-proclaimed individuals to decide what can and cannot be art.
This part of the review will contain spoilers for the film’s ending, so if you wish to watch this film spoiler free, you should probably skip the following paragraph.
“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring, within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Thus goes the motto of the latest art installment claimed by the museum. Christian is seen repeating these words multiple times during the film, yet his equal measures comical and upsetting encounter with a young refugee boy whom Christian mistakenly accuses of theft, proves that the finely polished art snob knows very little about equal rights and obligations. His constant efforts to refrain from making amends to the young boy’s family, hilarious as they may be, manage to irritate the viewer, especially as Christian persists on maintaining a cowardly and condescending behavior. However what makes this film really uncomfortable is the ending, as when Christian finally decides to offer the boy an apology, climbing an unmistakably square staircase to reach the boy’s lowly apartment, finally entering the infamous square, the family had already left. In a single blow Östlund denies his audience any form of catharsis, especially after watching the main character conducting himself rather very distastefully for two and a half hours.
The Square is a rich and complex film that manages to get its audience to laugh out loud then expertly drives them to rethink what they’ve just laughed about. It is social satire at its best, provoking the thought of its audience and introducing questions that are not necessarily novel, yet not often asked because of their uncomforting nature. Despite its erratic pace, unlikable characters and often equally shocking and hilarious script, this is a film definitely worth checking.