With his provocative, harsh, Molièresque satire on the contemporary art world, Ruben Östlund continues observing and commenting on society, media consumption, humanitarian issues and multilayered moral questions.
Though the official line-up of this year’s Cannes Film Festival didn’t include many Scandinavian titles, luckily The Square was among them. It was the fourth time Östlund competed in the most prominent European A-list film festival. In 2014 his Force Majeure won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. This time his movie got selected to the Main Competition where it got crowned with Palme d’Or.
The movie makes a travesty of what goes on in the contemporary art scene in terms of perception, creation and curation. By depicting the visitors of museums as unconcerned, superficial consumers, art as elitist, empty content and curators as salesmen caring only about selling numbers, The Square declares art as being a commercial product that doesn’t give much more to society than the latest smartphone model. Entering the discourse about the role of contemporary art, Östlund includes reflections of grotesque situations from real life where cleaners unintentionally destroyed artworks, because they mistook them for rubbish – for instance, Damien Hirst’s installation at a west London Gallery in 2001. The artist’s comment on the mistake: ‘Fantastic. Very funny!’ sheds a light on the role of contemporary art in blurring the line between art and life, the sacred and the profane. Östlund’s movie provokes reactions similar to that.
The Square follows Christian, the classy chief curator of a contemporary art museum. While he is preparing for the opening ceremony of a brand new installation, he gets robbed one morning by dodgy pickpockets on the way to work. The film takes place on two parallel levels: it follows the preparation for the exhibition and Christian’s personal journey. Even if through the use of a tracking app he succeeds in locating his phone on the map, he is not sure where exactly it is within a block of 50 separate flats. Following his colleague’s advice, he writes a letter in which he blackmails the likely thief, hoping to get his belongings back. Since he doesn’t know which mailbox he should deliver it to, he finally drops a copy into every single one. In fact, this results in accusing and threatening 49 innocent families, a criminal act that is more serious than the mere theft.
As long as petty issues keep him occupied, Christian forgets about important things, such as his being the director of an institution and the father of two. He doesn’t get touched in any way by The Square, the artwork he introduces to the audience that aims at educating people by confronting them with the image they create of themselves. Based on the idea of equality, this installation is a symbolic space where everybody is supposed to trust and help each other. But the curator’s actions are diametrically opposed to the values he claims to promote.
However, The Square doesn’t only attack hypocrisy. Östlund’s brilliant screenplay abounds with prudentially composed comedy scenes that ridicule human foibles by portraying each character’s behaviour as both controversial and absurd. Many gags originate from the confrontation of characters that are too deeply attached to etiquette and conventions with others who disrespect these rules.
The director portrays socially vulnerable groups with empathy but avoids being sentimental. He prefers to wrap his ideas in sarcasm and dry humour. In a wonderfully written scene, a beggar asks the wealthy curator for food and once he agrees she then goes on to specify what kind of chicken ciabatta she longs for. For a moment, the scene makes the upper-class character appear as a fast-food restaurant waiter who is taking an order. However, after bursting out with laughter at such an absurd situation, a second, more troubling thought comes to the viewer about the poor lacking the right to entertain food preferences. One of the main strengths of the movie lies within that kind of tone shift between comedy and the drama that always comes up unexpectedly within the movie.
Similarly to Öslund’s earlier piece entitled Play, The Square also depicts migrants taking advantage of the sense of guilt of Western people. In addition, it unmasks prejudices and hidden xenophobia in Western societies. When Christian drives to the suburban area to get his phone back, he turns out to be afraid to get out from his car, though in public he would never admit his prejudices.
In other scenes, the director makes important observations on society and human behaviour. Political correctness is portrayed as a necessity but at the same time as an obligation that provokes an automatic reaction that makes people behave irrationally and in ridiculous ways. Grotesque scenes remind the viewer that rules of the society might be contradictory and should be treated with flexibility.
In terms of film language, Östlund continues in the direction he has chosen with Force Majeure, his first movie including close-ups and shortened cuts. This time, by including extreme camera movements and focus shifts between foreground and background, the movie loses some of the director’s auteur attributes, such as the observational angle or the freedom that the viewer used to be given to select for himself the details to look at within the frame. However, the complexity of subject matters Östlund touches upon this time, account for the technical changes. Unlike his earlier works that concentrated on one issue, in The Square every single scene deals with a different important question. That complexity somewhat burdens the movie, especially since the several turning points of the plot don’t allow enough time for the viewer to think about these issues.
The Square is a clever, compact allegory that urges changes in society by clashing different social classes. It emphasises the fact that they are lacking in real communication and makes them all laugh at themselves. Also, the movie has a real capacity for entertainment that makes it accessible to a wider audience and deals with theoretical issues at the same time. In consequence, it targets simultaneously different social strata and through so doing encourages the building of bridges between them.