To make a film that spends its energy sneering at modern art and its institutions, tearing apart the art world’s smug pretensions and meaningless concerns – while indulging in a few laughs at the pseudo-intellectuals behind it all to boot – would have been an easy feat for Ruben Östlund, the director of 2017’s ‘The Square’.
Indeed, from the first five minutes it seems like that is what we are in for, as a hungover chief curator stumbles into an interview and visibly struggles to explain a comical piece of art jargon from his museum’s website. We should be grateful that Östlund chose a different route. To be sure, ‘The Square’ does not deny all the criticisms of modern art we’ve all heard before, nor does it spare the often complacent, money-soaked environment its characters exist in; but beyond this is a far more complex and arresting piece of work. ‘The Square’ is an exploration of the boundaries between reality and performance, of the pitfalls of trust, and above all, of how we react to the unknown.
‘The Square’ is an exploration of the boundaries between reality and performance
While ‘The Square’ is hardly an overt attack on everything modern art entails, one thing Östlund focuses on time and time again throughout the film is the disconnect between artistic naivete and the real world. Emotionless Stockholm inhabitants walk briskly past plaintive beggars and cripples in between scenes of curator Christian (Claes Bang) explaining the film’s centrepiece, a piece of concept art called ‘The Square’ that asks those inside it to be compassionate and caring – a message scorned by his PR team for being too plain and unprovocative. ‘Nobody would argue with that’, shrugs one, ‘it needs an edge.’ After Christian’s phone is stolen – the film’s first moment of discord – he tracks it with an app to an apartment building decidedly outside the centre of Stockholm. His bravado evaporating, he asks his assistant to go instead on the pretext that ‘I’m a semi-public figure…I might be recognised’ to which the reply comes, ‘not here!’
The film’s two crucial narrative elements, the artwork ‘The Square’ itself (marked out on a small section of cobblestones) and Christian’s robbery – brilliantly executed in an almost theatrical moment where he unwittingly protects a hysterical woman crying for help – both indicate one of Östlund’s central concerns: the problem of trust. If there is a message to be found here, it is that trusting others is not just always a bad idea, but nearly impossible in the first place.
‘What is the use of high culture and ideals’, Östlund asks us, that are so easily upended by our nature?
Christian becomes paranoid in an excruciating argument over a condom with the journalist he sleeps with, Anne (Elisabeth Moss). He resists letting her throw it away herself for an obvious, but unspoken reason that she mocks him for: ‘You really do think highly of yourself, don’t you?’ The scene shows Christian in a moment of intense psychological weakness, huddled under the sheets with both hands clasped to his chest and an expression of subdued fear on his face. Perhaps his guardedness is a natural reaction to his last undermining, which resulted in the loss of his possessions.
The cinematography of all the scenes in public brilliantly reinforces the viewer’s growing distrust of wider society, as the mass of people are shown impassive, bland, almost faceless. This idea is presented in miniature when Christian leads his two young daughters around an unopened exhibit, with the challenge to press a button marked either ‘I trust people’ or ‘I distrust people’. After stating they ‘trust people’ in general, the girls are confronted with a projection of scowling strangers and asked to leave their phone and wallet on the floor. ‘Does it feel strange?’, Christian asks them. ‘Yes’, they reply. Even in a space as secluded and controlled as an empty gallery, we are reminded, the most trusting members of society are unnerved by the reality of their own principles.
If there is a message to be found here, it is that trusting others is not just always a bad idea
However, for me the main achievement of ‘The Square’ was the fantastic way Östlund portrays high art and culture, and the subtle malevolence of a prosperous society, as practically inseparable. Often the boundaries of something, or the consequences of somebody’s actions seem to have been pushed too far, and exhibition or joke spirals into a grim new reality. In one scene, a man is hired as entertainment to stamp around a room full of financial donors like a ‘wild animal’. ‘If you show fear, the animal will sense it’, the announcer states. At first the guests laugh, but as the ‘animal’ gets bolder, the atmosphere degenerates horrifically.
‘What is the use of high culture and ideals’, Östlund asks us, that are so easily upended by our nature? The museum’s exhibit implores people to be kinder, but its PR campaign uses a violent shock-tactic CGI video to grab press attention. Christian is robbed trying to help somebody, and rashly looks for revenge, throwing his life further into chaos. The Square demonstrates that, even in a seemingly secure enclosure of symmetry, cleanliness, and languid comfort, as almost every frame emphasises, we cannot be sure of our own safety against whatever lies outside. If, as Terry Eagleton suggests, the role of culture is ‘to bite the hand [a developed, seemingly civilised society] that feeds it’ – – then ‘The Square’ provides the counterbalance in the form of that hand making a fist and lunging back.