Director: Ruben Östlund
Stars: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary
You can’t remove any part of a square and have it remain a square; it becomes something other, something open and unresolved. Similarly, one suspects that removing whole parts of Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’or winning film The Square would inherently change it irrevocably. It would not be what it is. It would become something other. But one thing this film begs for is trimming. Rarely have two and a half hours felt like such an egregious ask. Which is odd, because there’s a lot going on here, a lot to think about. But it’s all presented with such ugly self-satisfaction.
Claes Bang portrays Christian, the wealthy and renowned curator of an art museum in Stockholm, Sweden. As the museum prepares to exhibit the art of a promising new South American talent, Christian is beset by troubles and hilarities. The principal concern is the theft of his wallet and phone, taken by a trio of tricksters in the open space of a piazza. Using the GPS tracking on his phone he and his assistant locate the building that the thieves have run to; a working class tower block. Fearing confrontation with the proletariat, they embark on an anonymous campaign of blame via a letterbox drop; an act which will eventually lead Christian to a series of confrontations and reflections on his prejudice against the less fortunate.
The homeless are a recurring fixture of Östlund’s film, as he bluntly frames the disparity between the rich and poor. The centrepiece of the gallery’s new installation is a 4×4 empty illuminated square; intended to represent a space of equality in society. Yet it more frequently comes to act as a symbol of disparity. The divide between the classes defined by this negative space that has appeared between them.
The Square gleefully takes potshots at the absurdities of high society, depicting all sophisticates as delicate, cowardly and greedy; obsessing over decorum when there are graver matters being ignored. In the film’s standout scene (which features in the UK poster campaign) this timidity is brilliantly examined at a formal banquet which is ransacked by a piece of intimidating performance art. Terry Notary, muscular and ape-like, confronts the crowd with base, neanderthal brutality. Though vastly outnumbered, he dominates a room of cowed heads. That is, until he breaches a non-verbal contract of acceptable behaviour, provoking mob rule.
Where that line is, where good manners and delicacy end and where action becomes a necessity, is interesting ground to dabble in, but Östlund does just that; he dabbles. The Square has other societal conundrums to pose. Elisabeth Moss plays an American journalist named Anne who drunkenly sleeps with Christian. After, however, when she investigates his intentions, Östlund orchestrates a thrillingly off-kilter confrontation echoed by an audacious audio backdrop. Elsewhere, a viral campaign to promote the exhibit lands Christian in hot water, but, when he apologises and offers himself up as a sacrifice, he is just as vehemently chastised for backing down and indulging in self-censorship. The equality of the square is a myth; there are too many divisions, too many opinions. Consensus, Östlund appears to be saying, is impossible.
So there are plenty of observations stuffed into this sprawling satire, but they don’t engender a sense of coherence. Instead The Square feels like a series of interconnected vignettes, with the museum and Christian as lynchpins. Throughout the film is exceedingly tasteful in its aesthetic. Framing and lighting are always considered and just-so. Meticulous, even. Interiors, meanwhile, often feel sterile, antiseptic. The museum itself is a cold environment, but this is reflected in Christian’s own living space. It makes the film feel modern, yes, but it also doubles down on the sense of highbrow back-slapping that persists.
One senses that The Square isn’t designed to persuade anyone of anything. It isn’t interested in reaching outside of the limited sphere it intends to court (i.e. the very art crowd it lambasts). This makes it feel exceedingly indulgent. It is as though the film were designed purely to illicit bourgeoisie guilt without offending this target market, which makes watching it feel like an act of masochistic collusion. There’s an unappetising smugness to it. And as it ambles, on and on, without a particularly interesting or even likable protagonist, the rewards offered start to feel less and less endearing.
So, in spite of some neat ideas and some technically accomplished sequences, The Square comes to feel like less than the sum of its parts. At worst a trial. An ordeal. The Palme d’Or is frequently a bone of contention, and there are odd or undeserving winners stretching back through its history (and especially recently). That’s part of the fun. On this occasion I find myself wondering what the judging panel were thinking.