Directed by Ruben Östlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and Terry Notary
Review by Tom Cooney
Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square is a difficult film to summarise. Clocking in with a lengthy two-and-a-half-hour runtime, the writer/director takes his audience down a number of paths, all centred around a Swedish contemporary art museum and its multifaceted curator Christian – brilliantly portrayed by Claes Bang. The film’s many plotlines include Christian’s relationship with American journalist Anne, his mugging and subsequent attempt to retrieve his stolen possessions, as well as the controversial advertising campaign landing his museum in a PR maelstrom. Yet, none of these synopses really come close to capturing the true point of The Square. It’s a film designed to take its audience through an emotional journey, rather than a narrative one – in equal turn generating shock, unease and moral stimulation. No one gets out unscathed.
These feelings are all found in the film’s most striking set-piece. As a room of artists, museum employees and aesthetes sit down for a grandiose evening, they are interrupted by Terry Notary’s ape-man, the actor demonstrating all he’s learnt from primate roles in Kong: Skull Island and the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy. It all begins rather amusingly, Notary playing affectionately with one woman’s hair. However, things soon take a turn for the aggressive. The scene is a visceral experience for the audience, creating a sense of tension in the cinema almost matching that onscreen. You will find yourself questioning how you would act here, as Östlund twists an artistically-focused banquet into a real fight-or-flight situation.
Despite the inclusion of such scenes, The Square isn’t all fear and tension. One of Östlund’s greatest achievements throughout the film is to filter an abundance of laugh-out-loud moments through his commentary. He manages to convey the intricacies of social awkwardness perfectly, such as through Elisabeth Moss’s subtly desperate and painfully goofy journalist. She shines in the role, clearly having fun with her purposely cringeworthy dialogue. In another of the film’s comic motifs, we see museum goers entering a room filled with equidistant piles of gravel. Östlund pokes fun at a range of culture vultures here, from those who pop their heads in and nod at such exhibitions – clearly lacking any real understanding of what the point of it all is – to the Instagrammer, focused on getting their aesthetically pleasing snapshot, rather than actually pondering its meaning. The director is never bitter though, these scenes always portrayed with a-wink-and-a-nudge.
One thing I haven’t mentioned throughout this review is The Square itself, a new art installation for the museum exploring human compassion. ”The square is a zone of trust”, its motto goes, ”within its bounds we share equal rights and obligations.” It’s the symbol that ties the organised mess of Östlund’s film together, from Christian’s questionable relationships with his co-workers, lovers and family, to the constant inclusion of Stockholm’s homeless population. Beyond all the shocks and laughs, the film asks you to evaluate your social rights and obligations. And it works all the better for it.