I find it more than a little bit amusing that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, a festival that (deservedly or not) has a reputation for promoting subversive and confronting art films, was a picture satirising the attempts of a museum to create subversive and confronting pieces of art. Nearly every aspect of the art scene is skewered in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, from exhibitions that accidentally get swept up by the cleaning crew to performance art pieces to end in physical assault, and much like any good artwork seems more concerned with provoking discussion than providing a simple explanation. This is a film that asks questions that I don’t have the answers to, and I’m not even entirely certain I understood the question, but I’m still thinking about them long after leaving the theatre.
Despite marketing that emphasises the roles of American stars Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West, The Square largely follows the day-to-day life of Christian (Claes Bang) – the curator of Stockholm’s X-royal art museum. Despite his stylish and trendy appearance Christian is first seen passed out on the couch in his office before conducting an interview where he struggles to explain his own vague quote regarding a previous instillation. Things don’t get much better for him when his wallet and phone is stolen on the street through a con that qualifies as a rather clever piece of performance art in its own right, while the marketing team working on the titular exhibition bemoan the lack of any controversy that would cause it to go viral. What I found interesting is how throughout Christian’s problems Östlund takes the time to focus on various members of Stockholm’s homeless population, who are either ignored by Christian or used for his own purposes. It effectively demonstrates the gap between the lower class and the upper, particularly those in power who claim to be making art that speaks for the ignored and unrepresented without any idea of how to actually interact with them. This theme becomes more evident as The Square progresses and Christian engages in a spectacularly ill-conceived plan to retrieve his stolen goods, while the advertising for the new exhibition receives the controversy the marketing team was hoping for.
Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, demonstrated the director’s knack for the uncomfortable that is again demonstrated here. The camera will linger on characters as they dig themselves deeper with pathetic acts of desperation or misunderstood interactions, and scenes extend well beyond the point where the viewer would expect them to finish. A post-coital argument between Christian and Elizabeth Moss’s character is possibly the funniest argument about condoms ever put on screen, and an excruciatingly long sequence of Terry Notary performing as an ape at a black-tie dinner could serve as a brilliantly provocative short film itself. As The Square progresses the gorgeous production design and elegant cinematography that is so striking at first seems to fall away to reveal the shallowness and emptiness of Christian’s life, with Claes Bang masterfully exposing more of his character’s vulnerabilities and insecurities as the film progresses.
Throughout its lengthy two hour twenty minute runtime The Square explores topics as ranged as homelessness, social media, the class divide, bystander syndrome, the role of art in society, freedom of speech, casual sex, and more. Not every scene relates to the overarching story, and indeed certain moments are never brought up again, and yet not a single moment seems wasted – throughout it all, The Square always feels like it has something to say.