The Square (2017)
Sweden’s The Square won rave reviews from autumn festivals and won the big prize at Cannes 2017 with its cerebral, Scandinavian way of presenting humor as social commentary. On the heels of the long, bizarre Toni Erdmann, northern Europe dives into cinema with a classic air of human observation as critique. In Ruben Östlund’s The Square, the focus falls on art criticism and its place in the technological spectrum. Following a museum director as he produces a public work meant to expose inhospitality in Sweden, the film finds the lack of humanity in the humanities and the contradictions inherent in the fine arts crowd.
Modern art is rarely a medium I appreciate. Most art later than the 1960s is lost on me, and if The Square is emblematic of the world high art inhabits, I’m happy enough being a stranger. Empathetic manifestos from artists contradict the individual first motif of their actions. The square, meant to be a spot where ignorance is impossible, a box illuminated for the needy person’s attention, embodies a disconnection between purpose and performance. Claes Bang, ably playing Christian, the beleaguered museum director, nails the hypocrisy in his troubling character. Dealing with a surprise intrusion, his wrath against the world is imminent everywhere but his appreciation of abstract thought. His uneasy avoidance with an American colleague played by Elisabeth Moss speaks to an antisocial behavior limiting him as a person, and how can someone be critical on the outside without realizing the tepid waters inside themselves?
Art is also observed from the social spectrum in The Square. Social media campaigns and shock tactics. Cell phones and political correctness (aka patience and respect for other humans) observe the societal incompatibilities with the message coming from art. People are not clamoring for museums and obscure piles of gravel when Netflix offers Stranger Things. The community is stagnant, avoiding growth as a culture and then tripping into technology in the worst possible ways. Such resistance is found in this film: resistance to help a needy person despite the means and the theories; resistance to innovation because of its tainted perception; resistance to a culture encroaching with a hubris to think they can stop it.
Östlund has mastered some grand scenes. The Force Majeure avalanche is a perfectly paced thesis statement. Two scenes in The Square are equally as spectacular. Aside from Terry Notary’s performance piece as an aggressive ape, Elisabeth Moss captures some sperm-ransoming humor in condom tug-of-war on a boundary between unhinged and indignant that made me cringe and giggle simultaneously. A light romanticism and perverse paranoia makes for a turning point, finding the Fellini behind an underperforming, self-indulging (museum) director. Bang’s performance is the type of centerpiece cameo that a Redgrave sister would nod politely at (their highest honor). An impersonation with an aggressively sexual and violent demeanor, he might as well have been shouting, “I AM HARVEY FUCKING WEINSTEIN!” Like a sequel to Force Majeure, a delayed response to his inexcusable behavior and then rampant violence calls out the state of masculinity hardly changing since we walked in a more hunched manner (desk chair backs excluded). The Square proved to be a thought-provoking film that sticks with you.