The Square (2017)

  • Time: 142 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Drama
  • Director: Ruben Östlund
  • Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West


Christian is the respected curator of a contemporary art museum, a divorced but devoted father of two who drives an electric car and supports good causes. His next show is “The Square”, an installation which invites passersby to altruism, reminding them of their role as responsible fellow human beings. But sometimes, it is difficult to live up to your own ideals: Christian’s foolish response to the theft of his phone drags him into shameful situations. Meanwhile, the museum’s PR agency has created an unexpected campaign for “The Square”. The response is overblown and sends Christian, as well as the museum, into an existential crisis.


  • The Square is a piece of very contemporary art that is about very contemporary art and its ambivalent relationship to our social reality and responsibilities. “Relational aesthetics” is the interviewed artist’s term, i.e., exploring the relationship between art and our social reality.
    Does or should art confront our pressing issues of poverty, oppression, suppression, a heartless economic system, etc., or does it provide a comforting escape? Hence the very old, wealthy, white society that supports the contemporary art museum here but is discomfited by its challenges.
    So this film is an artifact about itself. That’s why we can ignore such narrative gaps as what Anne is and why she has a pet ape in her flat, who is Christian’s ex, what did Christian’s assistant drive into, what happened to the little boy left helpless on the stairs and why we get the Tourette’s heckler and the little girls’ acrobatic competition. We note these enigmas but don’t need them explained because this is not a story of humdrum reality.
    We take them on trust, as the clear majority of the museum goers declare themselves trusting at the entrance poll. But of course the film reveals a human order not worthy of trust. Too much is selfish and false.
    The film itself is a work of art called “The Square.” It situates itself in the events around the opening of a new exhibition called “The Square.” As Christian cites the artist, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” This art proffers what our real world should be — but what’s lacking in the film’s real world, as in ours.
    Squares abound outside that show. Christian is walking through a square when he becomes involved in a piece of street theatre that results in (i) his engagement with a screaming woman’s ostensible assailant, and (ii) the theft of his wallet and cell phone.
    The most dynamic square in the film is the shots down the apartment building stairwells, a spiral of squares within squares, both in Christian’s and in his boy victim’s buildings. That stairwell was a popular motif in Hitchcock, where — as here — it serves as an image of the layered consciousness, spiralling vertiginously into danger.
    In another square within the square, the Museum’s advertising agency releases a video in which a poverty-stricken little blonde beggar girl is exploded in that square. That depicts the opposite of the artist’s declared values. This commercial “art” animates what the original artist opposed. This square is released under Christian’s authority but without his input or approval. He’s too distracted with his robbery and revenge to pay attention. The ad properly ends his sanctuary — his job and his power.
    In contrast to these dangerous squares in life, we get the squares framed and tamed in the Albers-like painting on Christian’s hallway wall. These squares within squares are totally abstract, firmly apart from the flesh, from nature, from “relational aesthetics.” They are pure form without outside reference beyond their own harmonies.
    Metaphorically, Christian tries to “square” himself when he and his aide seek “justice.” They track down the thief by leaving accusations in every mailbox in the tenement. That “justice” causes his own injustice towards the falsely accused little boy who pursues an apology, further exposing the ostensibly civilized hero’s cruelty and arrogance. As it happens, the boy’s indignant demand for an apology, his perseverance and even his threat of “chaos” make him arguably the film’s most substantial character. All the more poignant, then, his evaporation.
    As abundant as the square are the instances of performance, whether in art or in life. Christian’s first scene with his daughters show both sides “acting out.” This contrasts to the regimentation and discipline of the girls’ acrobatic show and to the gravitas of the little boy’s just anger.
    Several scenes show interviews, which is a performance by artist and by questioner. The Tourette’s Syndrome heckler violates the scene’s normal decorum — and exposes its irrelevance to the real problems of the time. Here the mental disturbance is in the audience not in the maker of the art. The performance of the event barely survives the impulsive intrusion of reality. The debate over whether the man should be allowed to speak anticipates Christian’s firing over the embarrassing video — and at his press conference one reporter’s charge of suppressing free speech and the woman’s allegation of silencing the voiceless.
    The two ad-men (played by real Swedish ad-men) do a performance to pitch their ideas. This as the Museum staff perform an act of confused encouragement. One staff member performs his duties as dad there, too, bringing his whining infant to the meeting.
    The street robbery is an act of performance, with the two principles possibly partnered by the citizen who protects the “threatened” girl and draws in the mark, Christian. Indeed, the thief’s return of the wallet, money and cell phone suggests the robbery may itself have been a theatrical act, playing at being criminal. Christian’s “justice” is another performance, as he dons gloves and another’s jacket to play the avenger.
    Christian’s presentation as a flat, closed figure, with little emotional or psychological rounding, makes him a figure of constant performance. He’s making speeches, whether to the public or to an aide. He “performs” charity when he begrudgingly buys the beggar woman a sandwich — but callously ignores her request of “no onions.” His stolen money surprisingly returned, he rewards her again, but again “performs” as he peels off one bill after another.
    In bed with Anne, there is no connection or exchange between them. Christian fumbles alone to don the condom. Their intimacy segues into the tension of a literal tug-of-war over who gets to dump the safe. Neither seems to trust the other with it, for its possibly antagonistic use later.
    Christian performs his white male adult authority when he pushes away the insulted little boy. His video message to the lad is pure performance. His fear that he may have hurt or even killed the kid pushes Christian into an apology — which itself moves from personal admission into a practiced tract about our unjust society and our need for collective action. As if that excuses the lapse of the individual will.
    In short, this film seems the latest replay of Freud’s seminal Civilization and its Discontents. The ultra sophistication of the most advanced and theoretical contemporary art may represent the peak of our civilization, but it’s still just a hair away from man’s essential savagery. The disciplined acrobatics are a fragile attempt to rein in the wildness and selfishness of the child — and their parents. An art project theoretically intended to address our highest social conscience exploits the sensation of blowing up a little girl.
    The theme is clearest at the Museum’s formal banquet for the wealthy (white) donors, where the evening’s entertainment is supposed to be the titillation of a performance artist, a muscular man playing ape. The audience clearly doesn’t know how to deal with the artistic license they fund and purport to understand. They support the life energy of art — but only in its most controlled, antiseptic and safe forms.
    So they smile and titter away the actor’s initial animalism. Breaking a glass shows him a threat to their fragile order. Then at his first direct aggression, the men run away. When he ignores Christian’s closing of his act, they all retreat into staring into their laps, as if discreetly ignoring the threat will make it disappear. Decorum uber alles.
    But then the actor assails a pretty young woman, first poising above her in admiration, then caressing her, then dragging her off by the hair to rape her. This rouses the white old men into action. They erupt in her defence and proceed to beat and kick the actor into submission. The ape man actor has exposed the tribal savagery still alive in this ultra-civilized gathering. Mercifully.

  • The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, is a social satire, by turns savage and meandering, that often feels like an expanded piece of performance art than a conventional film. Whilst one can admire and appreciate the film’s lofty ambitions, there’s a certain ponderous undercurrent that prevents Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s latest film from reaching its maximum potential. It enervates when it should gather momentum, but it’s not without its merits.

    Christian (Claes Bang) is the director of a contemporary art museum, whose current exhibition features an installation called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” which consist of about a dozen mounds of gravel accompanied by a neon sign reading “YOU HAVE NOTHING.” Christian is particularly excited about the museum’s next exhibition, “The Square,” a conceptual piece described as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” where those within it “share equal rights and obligations.” What may work in theory does not necessarily work in practice, and this is evident in most of what unfolds in the film.

    Indeed, the theme manifests itself in several narrative strands, the first of which is the promotion of the piece itself. Christian believes in the strength of the artist’s concept but, understanding that he’s under pressure to make a big splash for the profitability of the museum, succumbs to his PR team’s insistence that they create promotional material that could generate controversy on social media. Meanwhile, Christian is also embroiled in a side project, one involving tracking down the thieves who fleeced him of his wallet and cellphone by staging an elaborate ruse that had Christian believing he had saved a woman’s life. Then there’s American TV journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss); their post-coital conversation includes arguing over who will dispose of his condom.

    Their argument serves as an appetiser for two sequences that genuinely hone in on the social contracts that are hardly ever upheld. In one, a talk by a visiting artist (Dominic West) is continually interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s; he and the rest of the audience try to figure out how to behave in the situation, their unease quite palpable. Yet that is nothing compared to the show-stopping sequence that takes place during a black-tie party for the museum’s benefactors, who are at first delighted and then paralysed into fear and discomfort by a shirtless performance artist (Terry Notary) impersonating a gorilla. The scene becomes increasingly both cringe-inducing and terrifying as the artist prowls about the guests, breaking down personal space and boundaries to the point where he drags a woman by the hair and nearly rapes her.

    Unfortunately, those standout scenes feel few and far between. At nearly 150 minutes, The Square is too unwieldy and perhaps too bloated with its multitude of ideas to be as powerful and incisive as it intends.

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