by Alistair Ryder
In 2014, director Ruben Östlund and his producer Kalle Boman submitted a bizarre art installation to be displayed at a modern art museum in the small Swedish town of Värnamo. In typical artist form, they never gave a formal explanation for the piece’s meaning, submitting only a vague descriptor that their piece, named The Square, was a “sanctuary of trust and caring” and that “within it we all share equal rights and obligations”. Basing a film around an art installation may seem like the most pretentious move any director could make. Luckily, the director’s Palme D’Or winning modern art satire uses his own idealistic installation as a backdrop on which to draw a damning (and often hilarious) critique of the relationship between art and commerce, as well as the self-satisfied people who inhabit the art world bubble.
The Square; dir: Ruben Östlund; Sweden 2017, 142 mins; Our rating: ★★★★/5
Danish stage actor Claes Bang stars as Christian, a museum curator about to launch a marketing campaign to raise awareness of the new centrepiece exhibit, The Square. However, his control over the PR relating to the attraction is lessened by his increased distraction over his deteriorating personal life. His phone and wallet are stolen in an elaborate scam, sending him to a rough tower block to get them back in a scheme that has continued repercussions, while his romantic life is in equal disarray thanks to an unexpected fling with a passive aggressive American journalist (Elizabeth Moss).
It’s true that The Square falls down a rabbit hole of subplots, that leave the final product feeling more like a series of brilliantly written recurring sketches, as opposed to a cohesive whole. Östlund specialises in a form of dry cringe comedy pitched somewhere between Ricky Gervais and the austere surrealism of his fellow Swedish director Roy Andersson- here, his comedic approach is less focused, his style often veering in to Andersson style vignettes, that occasionally serves to detract from his laser point focus on satirising the subject matter. There isn’t a single bad scene in the film, but the sequences never add up to a satisfying whole despite this.
However, Östlund has packed The Square with enough satirical invention to fill a dozen movies, and thanks to the perfectly pitched awkwardness of Bang’s central performance, the film is never anything less than funny. His performance is the one thing holding the film together, even as it appears to be falling under the weight of its many different thematic arguments. From a recurring theme about the relationship between art and altruism (Christian, and several other characters, are repeatedly shown as indifferent to many homeless people on the street- all while promoting an installation with an altruistic thesis), to the exasperated awkwardness of having to discuss sex with a partner whose name he can’t remember, Bang turns Christian in to a restrained variation on the archetypal David Brent/Alan Partridge-style figure. A well meaning person who is utterly tone deaf about their own views, and what they represent.
Bang’s greatest moment comes in the form of an apology video he has to make to the parents of a child he inadvertently accuses after his phone and wallet are stolen. A sincere apology clip subtly morphs in to a showboating speech on how the upper classes distrust the working classes, and how he was determined to stop any pre-conceptions he may have of those lower on the socio-economic food chain. The film may be drawing headlines for its dinner party scene, which has a climax that’s highly prescient in the post-Weinstein world, but it’s really the accurately observed, Partridge-esque scene above that most effectively (and eloquently) eviscerates the film’s comic target.
Even with the niche subject matter of modern art, The Square is pretty broad in terms of its comedic concepts (if not the film’s style itself). A nightmare duo of PR “lads” who have been hired to create viral marketing to promote the installation are hilariously plausible; their misjudged viral video registering all the funnier because of the age of misjudged marketing we are currently living in.
In a world where adverts can claim Pepsi solves police brutality, and Nivea can effectively erase somebody’s skin colour, their clip involving a homeless child seems exactly like the sort of headline grabbing exercise that would get foolishly commissioned. This storyline is focused on the least, but it has the sharpest and funniest things to say about the commercialisation of art, as well as the tricky tightrope walk of freedom of speech. The other storylines are more surreal (the best gag in the film is a visually gag that emanates from an item Elizabeth Moss’ character inexplicably keeps in her apartment) and more concerned with character development- helping to build a bigger picture, but without an equal share of satirical bite.
The Square is never boring, even if it does often feel like a series of extended vignettes squeezed to fit in to a narrative. Östlund has made an incredibly singular comedy, that couldn’t be mistaken for the work of another director working today- and even when certain sequences don’t hit their mark, they possess a joyous satirical invention that makes them hard to resist nonetheless.