Director: Ruben Östlund
Screenplay: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary
Runtime: 151 Minutes
Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or, The Square has been quoted by many as one of the strangest winners recent memory. It’s hard to disagree that the film is outlandish in its stance, predominantly positioning itself as a fiercely expressive takedown of the status of the modern art world. But it’s the widening of its gaze to facets of a high-minded culture and the hypocrisies that ride in elite worlds such as this where it picks its strongest fight.
‘The Square’ of the title is a fictitious art installation in Stockholm conceived by director and writer Ruben Östlund. "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." It stands as a reflection on a societies inability to engage with those in need, and the film uses this to its advantage by having characters call for help in crowded spaces with no one there to answer the call.
This depiction of a society of onlookers works its way through the character of privileged curator Christian (Claes Bang), as his life slowly comes undone after losing his wallet and mobile phone. His quest to reclaim it leads him into runnings with those he might deem as undesirables, to overlook his position at work and the advances of well-meaning but pressing journalist Anne (an underutilised but always watchable Elisabeth Moss) who wants to pursue a more than sexual relationship with him.
The whole time this is happening, the camera pulls its attention to the homeless on the streets, who Christian routinely attempts to avoid despite his liberal virtues. Östlund’s takedown of liberal complacency extends to everyone within the museum, none of whom wish to deal with the consequences of their actions or the advantages that their lifestyle offers them.
Östlund’s ear is a strong as his visuals, with noise being a fundamental component of contemporary disengagement, distraction and alertness to all surroundings and the dangers they might possess.
The dialogue is scatological and partially improvised, where entire conversations will play out where nothing much is actually being said beyond pottering around with pseudo-intellectual language and museum babble. The whole film is like this, using overcomplicated jargon to talk around obstacles and tasks, all to the characters own detriment as nothing is ever progressed because of this.
Christian is a strong lead character with much of it hanging on Bang’s performance. Something that extends from him to other characters is that they feel over-rehearsed and mannered, where even moments of spontaneity and humanity reveal themselves to be calculated manipulations. Which makes it all the more darkly hilarious when real emotion shows itself in bursts of panic.
In retrospection, and certainly during the experience of watching, the film feels distinctly unstructured as the relation between scenes and dramatic conflicts only occasionally crossover into each other’s paths. They make up the whole of the experience that is this spiralling downturn in Christian’s personal and professional life. It’s unrestrained and often baggy at a runtime of 151 minutes, and lacks that definitive transformative change that so defined the ending of Östlund’s previous work, Force Majeure.
Having said that, this path of fairly independent events and vignettes also works greatly in making the sensation of viewing it a memorable one, walking away with a number of specific scenes and encounters that help to define the picture overall. Some of which are inspired takedowns and depictions of real-life artists and events from Östlund’s life. From a daylight robbery near the film’s start that occures through a staged display, to a gentleman with Tourette's syndrome routinely interrupting an interview with Dominic West’s pompous artist Julian, these small pieces fill the film with tone and an urgent sense of anxiety and ultimate uncertainty as to its final narrative direction.
The standout set-piece of the film which has been heavily featured in the marketing material is the performance art piece in which artist Oleg Rogozjin (Terry Notary) is wheeled out at a gala dinner performing as a chimpanzee. The turn it takes from novel, to getting the point, to unnerving and downright distressing – never mind the multilayered nature of Notary’s terrific performance – leaves it as one of the most outlandish and alarming sequences of any film so far this year.
The Square sets its ambitions high and mostly achieves its set intentions. Were it any less straight-faced it might be seen as a farce, but Östlund’s level of control over the obscenity that it displays (both visual and thematic) portrays figures carefully guarding their own privilege and projected images, blissfully unaware of the pretence they uphold. That the film itself might even submit to this is inevitable given deeper reading, but if being provocative and pretty also means conveying its messages efficiently then it’s worth going along with it.