The Square, the latest film from Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund, reveals its entire thesis in its opening scenes. Anne, an art journalist (Elizabeth Moss), interviews Christian, an art museum curator (Claes Bang). She quotes a bizarre passage from the museum’s website, which is extremely verbose description of a lecture that’s all jargon and says nothing. A flummoxed Christian tries to explain it, but cannot, and yet fumbles his way through. There is a lot of language, but it is meaningless.
We then see a plaque that describes an art piece called “The Square”. It’s simply a square on the ground for people to stand within. It’s meant to be an egalitarian space, which allows people occupying the square to help one another on equal footing. The plaque depicts the square viewed in three-dimensional perspective. It’s a tilted square, in other words, viewed on a plane, with the closer side of the square in the foreground longer than the further end, and two other sides of equal length but not parallel. It says “The Square” but the shape depicted is a trapezoid. The language and the image are not congruent.
The Square is an intellectual cringe-comedy, full of awkwardness, strangeness, and a whole lot of arrogant yet oblivious fallibility. Apart from being a satire on the pretentiousness of the art world, The Square is a movie about big artistic and moral ideas, and the failure of these moral and artistic ideas when put into action. The Square looks bougie, masculine idealism in the eye and calls it out on its own insular bulls**t.
Director: Ruben Östlund
Release Date: October 27, 2017 (limited)
Art world satires are a bit obvious. We can all think of something we’ve seen in a museum that’s absolute garbage. It was probably something silly, made without skill or a sense of design. The piece may have intended to make a political or philosophical statement, but it’s so awful the point is lost or just not even apparent. In The Square, the representative thoughtless artwork consists of a bunch of pile of rocks on the ground. When someone in the museum tries to take a picture, a member of the museum staff politely informs them that no pictures are permitted. Of rocks. Östlund has impish fun with the set-up. In a later scene in which the artist responsible for the rubble is interviewed, a man with Tourette’s keeps interrupting and cursing, calling BS on the whole artistic enterprise and the empty philosophy behind it.
Östlund brings a moral dimension into The Square, adding culture and class concerns to this satire, both of which get the film beyond the obvious art world critique and deepen the movie’s concerns about the loftiness of ideas and the failure of action. Christian is an awful cliche of a middle-aged, snobby, upper-class white man, and he believes wholeheartedly in the idea of “The Square”. The royal palace is now an art museum, and now we are on equal footing. It’s great in theory, but the real world is more complex than this philosophical, abstract notion. The palace may no longer be a palace, but there are homeless people and refugees still on the streets. Hierarchies and classes still exist, and calls for help go unheard.
In The Square, the only place “The Square” seems to work the way it’s intended is in the museum itself. There is no Square in the outside world. Maybe the transformative power of art is limited to its own materials and dimensions, and only in spaces that the rich and elite can access.
This failure of ideas when put into meaningful action goes for moral philosophy as well. (Thinking of the meaningless language of bad art and bad philosophy, perhaps the whole notion of meaningfulness is what’s really at stake in The Square. Where is meaning, and how do we connect with people meaningfully?) After getting his cell phone stolen on the street, Christian decides to track it down via GPS. His plan to get the cell phone back involves leaving threatening notes in every apartment. En route to the building, Christian and a fellow museum employee are pumped, blasting “Genesis” by Justice like they’re badasses in an action movie. When they get to the housing complex in an unfamiliar part of town, Christian and his co-worker become timid. The music is over, the courage is gone. Sure, the idea sounded great, but now we have to go through with it? Dammit.
The same can be said of a hook-up at a party turned on its head. The sex isn’t great, and then things wind up getting more awkward after that. In the museum later as Anne and Christian talk about what’s gone on between them, there’s periodic cacophony from an unseen artwork in the background. It sounds like the toppling of a large structure, like an idea breaking down. There are a lot of awkward pauses on Christian’s part. He had an idea of how this was supposed to go, but Anne, another person–an individual outside the Square– has her own ideas. So much for your small, insular ideas of sex as an extension of masturbation, Christian. Crash.
Östlund displays a lot of precision as his scenes unfold. He’s got a great sense of control over every shot. Extended takes allow tension to mount, giving the actors the room they need to deal with the awkward or dangerous events they encounter. The showpiece of The Square involves an aggressive bit of performance art during a donor banquet. A man pretends to be an enraged gorilla, hopping from table to table, his arms extended with special braces that allow him to maintain a menacing, simian gait. He slams his braces as a display of power, and they clap like thunder, resounding through the hall in a way that renders the ensuing silence even more silent. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in The Square, and also one of the most troubling. This is where many of the ideas of art, ideology, morality, and action intersect, and the culmination is absurd, violent, and, while upsetting, funny. Or maybe the idea is funny. Again, the slippage of idea and action.
I’ve talking a lot about the ideas of The Square and haven’t touched much on the humor. There are generally two kinds of laughs in the film: polite chuckles and bemused guffaws. I experienced both, though probably more polite chuckles. It’s a movie where the viewer needs to be on the same page as Östlund, otherwise it’s an alienating experience. I’m reminded art museums again. This time I’m thinking of exhibits that patrons can view quickly and skip over, or that they can look at closely and maybe wander around for a while. I felt inclined to wander a bit in the space of The Square, though maybe because I often have similar thoughts about art and morality. (Am I, an educated, urbane person who thinks he “got it”, just someone in the insular Square? And is that really a desirable place?)
Admittedly, The Square finishes with an unresolved feeling, and maybe functions as a collection of scenes about interconnected ideas rather than a story. It’s cold and clinical even though it’s about human connections and the failure to make them. Östlund’s craft can bring about tension and a palpable dread as scenes unfold, but it keeps warmth at a distance. But perhaps that’s intentional given the worldview of the film and its protagonist. He’s in the museum and galleries, where the ideas work, and where actions aren’t as necessary. One can feel reassured in their mere ideas. Christian is constantly being called out on his BS in the real world, and yet it’s hard to say whether or not he gets it.
Maybe he only gets it in theory.