Cannes 2017: The Square Review
Boy, does Ruben Östlund up the ante in his follow-up to Force Majeure, his 2014 family drama that examined people’s responses to situations of high stress. Its dry comedy becomes inert and quietly condemning in its final moments, which is a staple of Östlund’s filmmaking. Thematically and presentationally, The Square is similar to many of his previous films — the movies acts as a mirror for the audience and forces them to confront darker truths about themselves. The film is undoubtedly a moralistic tale that could only come from Östlund, but it isn’t unfair to notice some qualities of his contemporaries in this bizarre satire.
In construction, The Square is reminiscent to Carax’s Holy Motors and Andersson’s Living trilogy (which concluded with A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence). While not vignette based and more straightforward than those two examples, The Square is more a piece of themes than it is a narrative display. Viewers hoping for narrative coherence will likely be disappointed, especially in the third act. Comparisons to Michael Haneke would also be apt if one were to view Haneke as a moralist who wants society to take a hard look at themselves.
The film follows Christian (Claes Bang), a struggling curator for a modern art museum in Stockholm. Well, Christian isn’t struggling, his life appears to be quite bourgeoisie and comfortable, but the museum is struggling. Christian hires a PR duo to drum up anticipation for the museum’s latest installation, an interactive piece called “The Square.” The piece occupies a four-meter by four-meter space that is bordered with LED lights and represents an open place where one can exist without being judged.
The art pieces all allude to the themes that Östlund plays with inappropriately on the nose ways. One of the main attractions of the museum is a room-spanning exhibition of piles of gravel with a neon sign that says: “You are nothing.” In the film, this apparent work serves as thematic recalibration and is revisited many times throughout the film to remind the audience that, well, we are nothing.
The film’s most arresting moment takes place during a gallery fundraising dinner that features a performance artist, Oleg (Terry Notary). A voiceover warns the dinner guests that a wild beast was coming and that interacting with it would only provoke it. Playing an ape, Oleg interrupts the dinner and begins to terrorize the guests with his screeching and, forgive me, monkeying around. The performance unhinges when Oleg teases a donor who isn’t interested in becoming a part of the art. As promised, Oleg unleashes his animal tendencies and harasses a woman violently. Meanwhile, Christian sits back unable to decide if he should interrupt the art or allow for the atrocity.
This immobility and general apathy is something many characters show in The Square. Despite the museum’s humanist forthcoming exhibition, Christian remains cold in problems outside of himself. Homeless people pop up often and go widely ignored. A volunteer camps out in front of the museum and asks people who pass by “Would you like to save a life?” without much avail. More than anything, The Square tackles the complacency and selfishness of people who should know better, i.e. the affluent and those pitching greater change emptily and for self-advancement. The result is poignant, hilarious and often shocking.
But, The Square is 142 minutes incredibly packed minutes. Östlund attempts are valiant and a lot of the things he throws at the audience stick, but only momentarily. There is much to appreciation about the ambition of the project and it is easy to get wrapped up in the vision, but it is a movie that is easier to admire than it is to love. The film becomes both it’s most ambitious and off-putting as the third acts dawns, after Oleg’s art piece. The tone shifts dramatically and the movie becomes much darker. Suddenly, Christian is aware of his brooding, selfishness and takes action. For a movie of such length, this development feels rushed and mishandled, but some of the transitional scenes are far less obvious than what proceeds, so more viewings may be necessary.
It all makes for a bizarre entity that at times needs to be more obvious if it is a satire and less on the nose to be the magnum opus that it presents itself as.
The first half of the film is quite accomplished in introducing its ideas. The first scene of note involves Christian being interviewed by Anna (Elisabeth Moss), who is trying to understand the pretentious language the museum used to describe an event they held. Christian’s plays very, especially to an audience of critics who, frankly, have all dabbled in the area of pretension. Unfortunately, Östlund doesn’t seem to find an ending that successfully ties everything together.
Perhaps the most enigmatic and shallow contrivance of the film is the most referenced sub-plot. Early in the film Christian, in a bravura performance of male gusto, intervenes in a domestic dispute that’s turned violent. But, the whole thing ends up being a sham and his phone and wallet are stolen as a consequence. He tracks his phone to the apartment complex of the thief and leaves threatening notes in everyone’s letterboxes in the building. His phone is returned, but a young boy is tangled in the mess as his parents believe that he has stolen Christian’s things. Christian disregards the boy and it gradually gets more and more hostile between the two. It doesn’t really stand for much and only drives home themes that have already been represented. It’s a distraction, but Östlund was clearly trying to get a reaction from it. Whatever he was trying to evoke with this storyline falls flat, perhaps because of twenty minutes that were cut from the film right before the festival.
Overall, it isn’t easy to call The Square a success or a failure because it requires multiple viewings to fully grasp, partly because of density and partly because of length. The surface-level appeals immediately click — like Elisabeth Moss fighting with Christian to throw away a used condom and a resilient Christian refusing — but about half of the more intelligent stuff doesn’t resonate. Maybe with more time, we will get more answers.