A winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the Swedish film The Square opens with the installation of a new work in the courtyard of the fictitious X-Royal Museum in Stockholm. The Square is, the museum’s curator Christian (Claes Bang) intones, a work of “relational aesthetics,” a glowing grid embedded in the plaza cobblestones outside the museum, intended for use as a zone of “caring and equal rights.”
In a nutshell, the artwork is meant to be an ideal society in a playpen-sized grid. That artwork only serves to remind us, throughout this wickedly funny and insightful film, of the many ways our modern world outside that artistic safe zone struggles but also fails to live up to those ideals.
Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s brilliantly wry and thoughtful film is also a fugue on the relational aesthetics of the modern world, where awkward, violent, cruel and tender moments can burst suddenly and frighteningly through the scrim of decorum and social harmony.
In his equally disconcerting breakthrough film Force Majure, Östlund examined a slippage in a marriage. In that film, an avalanche in the midst of a Swedish family’s ski vacation in the French Alps is the cataclysm that reveals disturbing fissures between a husband and wife and threatens the stability of their marriage. In The Square, that minute focus has gone macro as Östlund examines larger social relationships and how they keep the world operating smoothly.
Until they don’t.
And things fall apart.
The Square’s principal setting is a contemporary Swedish art museum where provocative ideas and rule-breaking are embraced. But even the socially conscious denizens of this world have their own hang-ups and prejudices, most often expressed in the form of the museum’s Tesla-driving curator Christian, whose life outside its walls is far more complex and fraught.
We initially think we know Christian. Or at least his type. Self-possessed, smart, sophisticated his prestigious job and good looks guarantee him a certain privileged status in society. He comes across as cold and stuffy and his domain, contemporary art, can also initially look like it’s going to get the usual pop culture drubbing for its insufferable pretense and opaque language and behaviors.
But Christian (and also the art world) is no easy mark or cliché in Östlund’s hands. Instead, Christian has his own anxieties, prejudices and blind spots, that continually interfere with his efforts to do the right thing.
A complication enters Christian’s seemingly codified and controlled world when his wallet and cell phone are stolen and he and a younger, tech-savvy colleague hatch a plan to retrieve his belongings. The action sets something both humorous and disastrous in motion. Guided by Find my iPhone, the two journey across town to the Swedish version of the banlieue to find Christian’s wallet, setting off a complex domino effect of interactions and events that only highlight the rituals and lockstep behaviors we all mistake for reality. Östlund shows how dramatically our sense of truth can be shaken up when we step outside familiar parameters.
The modern landscape that scrolls past is that of any contemporary big city: men and women sit on street corners begging for money, or sleep in the pouring rain under plastic tarps. The world is decisively split, between Christian’s world of prosperity and that of the homeless people who seem to materialize at every turn. When Christian tracks his belongings to a downtrodden apartment house across the city, that collision of his safe, comfortable realm and a new unknown one puts him into scary, often guilty proximity to a very different reality.
As Östlund’s film develops and deepens in its effect, we see the overlap between the artwork in the film and the mechanisms of Östlund’s own film. Like the titular artwork, Östlund’s film is its own theater of human behavior, a chance for self and social scrutiny.
At times, Östlund’s film can suggest a collision of “What Would You Do” TV cheese and the interventions of conceptual art, as in a work at the museum where visitors are asked to pick a side in a social experiment: “I trust people,” or “I don’t trust people.” Christian and his two young daughters, visiting their divorced father for the weekend, choose trust. At several turns in The Square, Christian tries to live by that mantra. And at other times, when a terrible misunderstanding arises in his wallet-recovery scheme, he shows a terrible failure to act on his values.
Often reminiscent of last year’s uproarious German social satire Toni Erdmann with its similar emphasis on embarrassment and First World economic injustices, Östlund’s film also has much in common with another European art house auteur, Michael Haneke. Like Haneke, Östlund is a director also terminally interested in the thin divide between social order and harbingers of social collapse. In films like Cache and Code Unknown, Haneke focuses on prosperous, upper middle class Europeans and the various Others who threaten their complacency: the poor, immigrants and other people pushed to European society’s margins. But Östlund sweetens that dystopian state of things with a streak of black humor that only highlights how often, as modern citizens of the world, we see the absurdity of our situation, as well as the bleakness. Östlund affords us the opportunity to laugh at these characters’ quandaries, and also at our own, to recognize the impossible situations we are often placed in, as seen in an embarrassing post-one-night-stand conversation Christian has with a pointedly clueless, shrill American art writer Anne (Elisabeth Moss) in one of the museum’s galleries that is periodically interrupted by an artwork founded on chaos: a quivering tower of schoolroom desks in the background and the cacophonous crash of the furniture tumbling to the ground on a related soundtrack.
In another blackly comic episode, a man with Tourette’s Syndrome repeatedly interrupts an interview with American artist Julian (Dominic West) at the X-Royal Museum with obscene pronouncements, such as demanding the elegant, older female interviewer to “show me your tits.” The audience and museum officials are caught in an excruciating and hilarious limbo, between shock and embarrassment at an interview that is quickly going off the rails and a desire to show empathy and respect for a man, as one audience member chides, with a neurological disability. Political correctness has gotten a lot of ribbing in contemporary life, but there is something both ridiculous and noble about the way these people try to be “their best selves” and put the feelings of this audience member before their own irritation at how completely he is ruining their experience. Östlund manages at this and several other junctures, to show the strange binds of living in the 21st century, where a simple stop at the local 7-Eleven can entail shameful confrontations with homelessness and a trip to the museum can mean possible assault and battery in the name of button-pushing art.
The culmination of The Square’s message about the thin line separating polite behavior from every-man-for-himself chaos comes in the film’s poster art set piece. One of the funniest—and also most skin crawling—scenes involves a performance artist (movement choreographer Terry Notary who has lent his uncanny physical gifts to playing apes in numerous Hollywood films) who does his act at a museum dinner (a scenario based on a real-life incident in which artist Oleg Kulik played a dog in a performance piece). The artist’s imitation of an aggressively pacing, terrifying ape almost instantly turns these art world masters of the universe in black tie and designer gowns into cowering preschoolers staring into their dinner napkins, terrified to make eye contact with the screeching, simian man stalking the room.
At this and a host of other turns in The Square, Östlund reminds us of how easily humankind can retreat to its basest self, avert its eyes and worry about self-preservation before the safety of its fellow humans. Replace that lunatic artist-ape with just about any idea: Syria, homelessness, sex trafficking and that fancy dining room becomes a stage set for our own contemporary state of being: constantly turning our gaze away from the raging nightmare in the room, for self-preservation, selfishness, or simply to continue living without being eaten up by anxiety.
Östlund presents an art world that is, at times, laughable in its pretensions. But in the end, The Square as a film, goes to the same places that much of contemporary art does, using art as a context to engage with societal fears and insecurities and alert us to the many ways we fail to live up to our ideals.
“The Square” is at the Landmark Midtown Art theater through November 24.