THE SQUARE (Ruben Östlund, 2017)
IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at West Third St. 212-924-7771
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave., 212-875-5601
The plot of Ruben Östlund’s 2014 absurdist satire, Force Majeure, turns on a man’s momentary act of surprising cowardice when an avalanche threatens him and his family at a ski resort. In the Swedish writer-director’s latest film, the Palme d’Or-winning absurdist satire The Square, the plot is set in motion when a man’s momentary act of surprising bravery leads him into a spiral of personal and professional chaos. The Tesla-driving chief curator of the fictional X-Royal contemporary art museum in Sweden, Christian (Claes Bang) is walking through a busy plaza when he hears a woman crying for help as bystanders do nothing. After his initial hesitation, Christian intervenes and is ultimately quite pleased with himself and his decision to do the right thing — until, a few moments later, he realizes he’s been robbed. Back at the museum, Christian listens to a pair of millennial marketers pitching their campaign for the institution’s upcoming exhibit, “The Square,” which is highlighted by a four-meter-by-four-meter square positioned on the cobblestones in the museum’s front courtyard. An accompanying plaque reads, “‘The Square’ is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” As the museum contemplates a cutting-edge ad campaign for the exhibit, Christian has to deal with an arts journalist, an angry kid, the museum board, and his own moral decisions.
The film opens as Christian is being interviewed by Ann (Elisabeth Moss) in a gallery, in front of a neon wall sign that says, “You have nothing.” Later, the sign says, “You have everything.” This dichotomy is central to Christian’s inner dilemma; he seemingly does have everything, but his world is slowly shattering, just like the artworks heard crashing to the ground later while he is in a deep personal discussion with Ann. Östlund skewers the art world, political correctness, class conflict, freedom of speech, privileged social groups, and the concept of “safe spaces” in the film, which was inspired by a real exhibition by Östlund and producer Kalle Boman that ran at the Vandalorum Museum in Sweden in 2015. Immediately following the opening interview, which reveals Ann has no feel whatsoever for contemporary art, workers remove the statue of King Karl XIV Johan that stands in front of the museum; on the base is his royal motto, “The love of the people my reward.” As the monument is being taken off its plinth, the crane drops it and the king’s head falls off. “The Square” takes its place, signaling the old being replaced by the new, physical objects replaced by lofty ideals, with an utter disregard for what has come before. Östlund (Involuntary, Play) is not above making such obvious analogies and references, including naming his protagonist Christian, a man who spends much of the film attempting to do what he considers the right thing. (Östlund, who also edited the film with Jacob Secher Schulsinger, has said that “The Square” installation is a place where the Golden Rule and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should take precedence.)
The film focuses on the issue of trust, and particularly how humans lose their ability to have faith in others as they mature. At the entrance to the “Square” installation, visitors are given the option of deciding between two paths, one marked “I Trust People,” the other “I Mistrust People.” Christian’s two daughters both take the former. The older daughter is a cheerleader, showing trust in her teammates as the girls are tossed high in the air and wait to be caught — but not without several men hovering right behind them to try to prevent any possible falls. The difference between childhood and adulthood is also evident in how Christian deals with a determined young boy in trouble because of the divorced curator. Bang is stoic as Christian, a man who feels more at home among works of art than with other people. He wants so desperately to be good, but it’s getting harder and harder to make the right decision in the current politically correct atmosphere, and he is so self-absorbed that he even fights over possession of a used condom, in one of the film’s most bizarrely comic moments. Those choices come to the fore in two wildly uncomfortable scenes involving an American artist named Julian (Dominic West), first at a public Q&A where he is bedeviled by an audience member with Tourette syndrome, and later at a gala fundraiser where a bare-chested performer (motion-capture actor Terry Notary) moves around the luxurious room, acting like an ape, but as he begins breaking physical and socially acceptable boundaries, no one knows how to react. (His acting like an ape is in direct contrast to Ann’s roommate, an ape who is far more civilized and is never commented on.) Both situations frustrate the viewer as well, as we are as hamstrung as the people in the film, all of us experiencing the bystander effect together. And the mood is further joyfully complicated by the lighthearted, satiric music. Despite a few minor missteps, The Square is a searingly intelligent exploration, and condemnation, of where humanity stands as a society in the twenty-first century, fearful of our every move, searching for that imaginary safe space where we can live and breathe freely with our fellow beings, consequences be damned.