A deep dive into the world of contemporary art, The Square offers much to marvel at and even more to think about.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and subsequently nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, The Square’s release in the UK comes with a degree of high expectation. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s follow-up to 2014’s Force Majeure features Claes Bang as art museum curator Christian, whom we follow during his workplace’s preparation for the unveiling of a new exhibition titled ‘The Square’ – a work which aims to encourage altruism amongst a population portrayed as increasingly passive and uncaring.
In its satire of art world culture and lifestyle, Östlund paints a broad canvas in his exploration of a variety of relevant themes. These range from reflections on the influence of social media to the ethics of emotionless sex, whilst a sequence with Christian addressing journalists engages directly with the ongoing discussion surrounding political correctness. It is applaudingly ambitious, yet can fall into bouts of self-indulgence, sporting an unwieldy 150-minute runtime that is perhaps excessive for a film that surrenders its biting edge in its latter half. Though it does try to do too much, The Square manages to be intensely captivating in what it presents: a darkly funny, unceasingly uncomfortable critique of class disparity and hypocrisy – one that purposefully chooses to refrain from severe condemnation.
This overwhelming discomfort results in scenes of stifling laughter, one such example starring Elisabeth Moss and an argument over the disposal of a used condom. Moss is a worthy actress whose profile has been raised exponentially by The Handmaid’s Tale; a greater role for her here would have been most welcome. The tour de force, however, is a vignette that sees performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) let loose on a room of wealthy patrons. He is a wild animal, a chimpanzee with only the appearance of a human being. This is but one of several brief, powerful episodes that are largely isolated from the central narrative focus on Christian. The Square’s fleeting spotlight means that it can appear to lack control – which is admittedly true in part – but these provocative sequences lend the film greater life and colour.
Östlund’s direction is slick and often brilliantly subversive: certain scenes perform as palindromes in how their ends parallel their beginnings, producing the straightforward impression of ‘Wow, that was smart.’ The visuals on show could function as art exhibits in their own right, with one Hitchcockian sequence of ascending a spiral stairwell quite literally hypnotising. An overhead shot of Christian searching desperately through rubbish as the rain pounds down upon him is affecting in all the right ways. But The Square is also effective in its subtleties, the resolution and most profound moment coming in the simple form of Christian recording a video message on his phone.
Despite some scenes of overt politicising, the film is not as hard-hitting as it may initially seem. It highlights the pervasiveness of poverty regularly, but this thread takes a backseat to Christian’s own struggles. It has points to make but also offers counterpoints, the outcome being an ambiguity in its character. This may be viewed to its detriment, but The Square is naturally imitating the objective of the same museum art that it mocks. It desires to be observed and interpreted by audiences in an assortment of ways, based on personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, rather than offering definitive statements that clearly signal its intent and allegiances. It is undoubtedly challenging in its allure. A work of art, then, in the truest sense of the term.
The Square (2018), directed by Ruben Östlund, is distributed in the UK by Curzon Artificial Eye Film Co. Ltd, certificate 15.