Ruben Östlund’s The Square won the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes and is a satire about the self-absorbed pretensions of the art world; it’s often extremely funny and at times quite uncomfortable.
If the audience at my screening – a preview in London with the director in attendance – is anything to go by, this film was clearly highly anticipated. Östlund’s previous film Force Majeure was an excellent black comedy about discomfort, blame and guilt after a man flees an avalanche at a ski resort, ignoring his wife and child but pausing to rescue his mobile phone. There was an unmistakable buzz in the room for this latest film, and at the subsequent Q&A some of the audience referred to it as a ‘masterpiece’ and ‘flawless’.
In my opinion, The Square is far from flawless not least due to its lack of focus and structure but it’s still a fascinating and remarkable film.
The film is centred around successful Swedish art gallery curator Christian (Claes Bang) and has two loose narrative threads. The first follows Christian as he launches a new conceptual artwork ‘The Square’ and an accompanying exhibition. Simultaneously, we see his efforts to retrieve his stolen mobile phone aided by his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø); as in Force Majeure the phone is a pivotal prop.
The film draws much of its humour from Christian’s self-importance and from the insular art world he inhabits.
The initial scene sets the tone for the first half of the film. Christian is interviewed by journalist Anne, played magnificently by Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, Top of the Lake, etc). After a coy, admiring question that massages Christian’s ego, she wrong-foots him by asking the meaning of the artist’s statement that describes one of his own exhibitions, some pretentious jargon-clothed gobbledygook about ‘museum’ and ‘non-museum’ that’s meant to sound cutting edge and profound but barely amounts to Duchamp’s ideas from a century ago (apparently the text was cribbed from a real artist’s academic statement). Christian’s discomfort is very funny when the bubble of his pretension is so easily burst.
There’s a recurring narrative concerning the marketing for the exhibition’s launch. A pair of young ‘creatives’ concoct a YouTube campaign that’s intended to provoke outrage, arguing that their video must be sensationalist to compete for attention with terrorists and the alt-right. The waffle and deferred decision-making feels authentic and is often humourous but the satire is sometimes a little too obvious. However, the inevitable consequences are both funny and lead to a more serious examination of how far the public can be provoked.
Modern, conceptual art is a source of much humour. One of the exhibits is merely several mounds of gravel, and we revisit this regularly; Östlund draws some delicious satire from the public and gallery staff’s reaction to this vacuous artwork.
These digs could seem like cheap shots at easy targets. While the film accurately pokes fun at the pretensions of the art world, the ridicule is never cruel. The carefully-aimed satire and the simultaneous respectfulness are both probably down to Östlund’s own experiences in conceptual and performance art. In fact ‘The Square’ in the film is a direct echo of a real piece by Östlund and producer Kalle Bowman, also called ‘The Square’ and exhibited in 2014 at a gallery in Värnamo, Sweden. Knowing this background lends the film more authenticity, but also makes it a surprisingly direct exercise in self criticism.
Elisabeth Moss is excellent in this film, although her role is relatively small. After the interview, Christian next meets her at a party, flirtatious and perhaps a little bit drunk. He ends up going to her apartment where they have a one-night stand. After an awkward sex scene where Anne is unfulfilled, there’s a very funny argument about who should dispose of the used condom, the implication is that Christian is so full of his self-importance that be suspects that Anne wants to keep his sperm. The pair bicker and there’s an uncomfortable tug-of-war with the stretched, filled condom. Moss plays this perfectly, adding little touches that make this particularly amusing: facial expressions, the comic timing when opening the pedal bin, the scampering away at the end of the scene.
There’s much in The Square that is deliberately uncomfortable. The Square was shown at Cannes in May 2017, before the Weinstein revelations. The aftermath of Christian and Anne’s one-night stand feels even more uncomfortable in the context of #MeToo. Anne challenges Christian angrily the following day in the gallery. Desperate not to be overheard by the gallery attendants, Christian eventually admits that he saw Anne as yet as another conquest, and that he enjoyed using his power as the important museum curator to attain that conquest. In a queasy moment he suggests that Anne should take this as a compliment.
The ‘Square’ (both in the film and in real life) has the accompanying artists’ statement: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations”. The installation was intended to promote altruism and highlight the social contract that underpins society. It is an idealistic notion and the film film regularly draws comparisons between Christian’s elevated, self-important, detached world , and the ‘real world’, untrusting and perhaps a little dangerous.
In one particularly direct example, Christian takes his young daughters for a private nighttime gallery viewing of a reproduction of the ‘Square’. He encourages them to leave their mobile phones on the floor in the square outline as he takes them around the rest of the exhibition, asking them to wonder whether the phones will be still be there when they return. Of course, this is absurd: they are the only ones in the building, in the safe cocoon of the gallery.
This is in contrast to the very early scene when Christian’s own phone is stolen in an elaborate theft immediately outside the gallery, in daylight surrounded by crowds. Walking by himself, he hears a woman screaming for help: “he’s going to kill me”. She runs up to a passerby who in turn asks for Christian’s assistance to help calm and protect her and dispel her pursuer. After the incident is defused, the two men congratulate each other, and Christian says how it was a great idea for the other man to ask for help. Ironically, Christian soon realises that the incident was a set-up to steal his phone, wallet and even apparently his cufflinks, and this makes a mockery of his social contract ideals.
Östlund is interested in the ‘bystander effect’, a phenomenon in social psychology were individuals are less likely to intervene to help a victim if a crowd is present.
This is very effectively explored in a scene at a lavish black-tie dinner for art gallery funders. It’s perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in the film and is the focus of much of its promotional material. I’m going to write about this scene in detail: it’s incredibly powerful and effective, but as its an isolated incident it doesn’t contain any key plot spoilers.
The wealthy, refined diners in their evening finery surrounded by the gallery’s gilded palatial opulence are to be entertained by a surprise piece of performance art. There’s a recording of jungle drums and thunder, theatrical lightning flashes, and an amplified announcement that says “Welcome to the jungle. Soon you will be confronted by a wild animal”. This heralds the emergence of Oleg, a man who mimes a wild ape. Oleg is played by physical actor Terry Notary, who did some of the motion capture for the latest Planet of the Apes films and who we’ve previously seen in video footage projected in the gallery.
The way Östlund builds up this scene from amusement to discomfort to horror is masterful.
Oleg’s ape mimicry is initially endearing, a bit of fun. He leaps across the room at first cautious and then slowly interacting with the guests, pausing to flirt with a blonde and eliciting ripples of warm laughter from the guests. He has won over the audience. He then bounds over to the alpha-male at the gathering, Julian an important visiting artist, and gently pokes at his ear and face, placing a napkin on Julian’s head. Julian tries to brush him away, but the man-ape persists, humiliating Julian to more laughter and reinforcing his physical primacy. Julian gets increasingly irritated and the altercation ends with Julian storming from the room. Nobody steps in.
With the alpha-male gone, Oleg has asserted his dominance. His physical movements become frighteningly powerful and the crowd is disquieted. This feels dangerous now, the amusement has vanished. Christian nervously tries to end the performance, calling for applause, but Oleg retaliates with a fearsome growl. Nobody’s going to challenge him now.
A mobile phone goes off and he rushes over and tears it away from the owner. Another scuffle. He rushes to another table, leaps atop. The alpha male, threatening and frightening.
Oleg then becomes sexually aggressive. He challenges a male diner who immediately backs off pulling his chair away. He challenges another man who quickly leaves the room. This leaves a young, beautiful woman isolated at the table, clearly Oleg’s target. As he leans over her menacingly, she tries to brush him away, but it’s obviously futile and half hearted. Visibly terrified, her shaking voice asks for help from her boyfriend, the man who previously pulled back his chair when challenged. But he is too fearful for his own safety and doesn’t do anything. Oleg then toys with the woman’s hair, sniffs it, and then pulls her off her chair and drags her by the hair across the floor before trying to mount her. Only then do the terrified and outraged guests violently intervene.
The scene is incredibly powerful, and world have made an excellent short film.
However despite containing many excellent individual sequences, the problem with The Square as a whole is that it’s largely unfocussed. Östlund has collected a succession of incidents that explore topics and themes such as the pretensions of the art world, the reliance on art on money, self-importance, social divisions and fears, offence versus free speech, social contracts and the limits of extremes. But it doesn’t gel. I expect that almost any scene from this film could be removed and it wouldn’t matter.
In the Q&A after this preview screening, Östlund confided that when writing the film he had a number of scenes in mind, partly inspired by real life, but it took him a long time to find a narrative thread. He revealed that many of the details come from banal incidents and seemingly without much broader significance or relevance.
For example, there’s a scene with the PR agents when one man brings his noisy, crying baby to the meeting. The people are constantly interrupted by the child. In the context, this feels like some vague commentary on the ‘real world’ interrupting an artistic sanctuary (there are many interruptions in the film). Or perhaps an observation on politically-correct tolerance where nobody wants to criticise the baby’s presence even though it is an obvious distraction. But no, the explanation is just that he saw a similar event at a real meeting and thought it was funny. There’s another scene which could be interpreted as a satirical comment on political correctness, where a man with Tourette’s syndrome shouts out involuntary obscenities at an artist during a talk but his constant interruptions and disruptions are humoured and excused. Again Östlund just claimed he was just recreating a real situation that he’d experienced and found amusing.
Similarly, there is a rather strange moment when Anne takes Christian back to her apartment. We (and Christian) are surprised to discover that Anne shares her flat with an ape who ignores Christian and spends his time scribbling with coloured pencils in a book. Rather than a comment on animal urges, or a prefiguring of the Oleg scene, Östlund just wanted something unexpected to wrongfoot the audience.
There are lots of scenes involving homeless people, fairly bluntly contrasted with Christian’s ideological but detached and and self-important notions about social contract. One scene involves a begging woman who demands that Christian buys her food, specifically a chicken ciabatta, her insistence and specific request changes the power balance between herself and Christian. But again Östlund put it in because a similar incident happened to a friend and he found it amusing.
Of course, the decision to include these incidents is a deliberate creative one – and it could be that the director is reluctant to explain his decisions – but ultimately this film is a succession of scenes around certain topics, not really about these topics. There are recurring themes that resonate and reinforce, but ultimately the finished film adds up to far less than its individual scenes. It feels unstructured. The first hour is great: funny, biting and full of ideas, but the film becomes flabby and unfocused.
Östlund stated at the Q&A that he didn’t want a conventional set-up, with the director establishing the plot, characters, situation, themes etc and then the audience enjoys seeing how he develops these. But this lack of development makes the film rambling and vague. Reportedly, the director felt the need to make further reedits to the second half of the film even after the Cannes win, delaying the film’s release date and suggesting the filmmakers were aware of these deficiencies. It’s a long film, the version at this previous ran for 151 minutes, and it came close to outstaying its welcome.
That said, the film is mostly very well acted. The main characters are nuanced and with great comic timing, although some of the supporting roles are a little too broad.
The filming is unshowy, but well executed. There are two particular techniques worth mentioning. There’s a marvelous scene where Christian is in a block of social housing, alone at night and clearly uncomfortable and anxious. Östlund expresses that anxiety by having the corridors in darkness, except for the lights immediately overhead triggered by motion sensors. As Christian walks down the passageways, these lights turn on and off increasingly quickly, so he is constantly surrounded by disconcerting darkness.
Also, Östlund has a tendency to hold the camera on an individual for slightly longer than normal, instead of the usual two-shot dialogue convention. In one scene, where Michael is waiting anxiously alone in a car, you never see the person outside the vehicle whom he’s nervously talking to, again building discomfort.
The Square is frequently funny and thought-provoking. It is also a rambling unstructured mess of a film. It feels like the director had no clear conception of what he was trying to say, but instead has thrown together a number of individual scenes in the vague hope that they might coalesce. However, the fact that these individual scenes are always interesting, and sometimes exceptional is reason enough to see this film.
The Square will be released in the UK on 16th March 2018.