The Square: Too Enigmatic for its Own Good?

Directed by Ruben Östlund
TriArt, 151 minutes, R (nudity, language, disturbing images)
In Swedish, Danish, English, and English subtitles

The Square was Sweden's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2108 Oscars. Watching it explains instantly why it was nominated and why it did not—indeed could not—win. It has much to say, but it's an experimental film marked by insight and incoherence, poignancy and puzzlement, and fine performances and mediocre ones. Director Ruben Östlund seems aware of these contradictions, yet embraces them, integrates them into the plot, and uses them to parody the very world of conceptual art to which he belongs.

Let's start with how the film is routinely digested for movie listings. It uses the artist's statement for the work at the film's periphery: "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." This leads one to think the film is some sort of docudrama about an enigmatic piece of art: a literal square cut into courtyard paving stones whose borders are marked by a solid line of white light. That certainly did not propel me into the theater. In the movie, though, the work is talked about more than actually shown. This suggests that The Square needed a better marketing campaign, but marketing is one of the targets of Östlund's lampoon—another odd choice given that such a work actually exists and was not fashioned by the film's fictional Lola Arias, but by Östlund himself and two others.

What's going on here? The Square's protagonist is Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of the Stockholm X-Royal Art Museum, whose forte is edgy conceptual art the likes of which straddle the razor's edge between bold and just plain bullshit. There is, for example, a room filled with conical piles of dirt. What do you make of that? And what if I told you that Yoko Ono actually made such an installation? Östlund's own Square is a riff on environmental artists such as Julian Schnabel and you'll also find sneaky references to Robert Smithson, Carl Hammond, and Oleg Kulik. That is, if you even know who these people are. This too is a cloaked insider joke. To know these people requires a level of familiarity that often presents as sophistication. Is it, or is it self-reverential snobbery? There's a delicious early scene in which Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist, asks Christian to explain one of the museum's own statements about an exhibit. She reads him the verbatim postmodern mangling of language and Christian can but parrot back a few of the words Anne has just read. She replies that she has no more questions, though it was just her second. This won't prevent the two from bedding, though, so let's cut to a few other things in play.

The Square also skewers bourgeois and sophisticate values, especially the hypocrisy of how the well heeled speak with such passion of how the art and their lives identify with "the voiceless," yet each day they rush by street beggars. Another scene—which actually happened—finds Christian unable to complete a public interview as he is constantly interrupted by vulgarities from a man with Tourettes Syndrome. The very idea that this person should not be allowed to remain in the auditorium is met with vigorous protest from those decrying that those with such problems should not be marginalized. In fact, this is a double parody; it also explores the tension between the cultural decorum of Swedes versus the dilemmas posed by absolute tolerance. Such conundrums rise again when an ad firm produces a buzz video. A blond child stands in the Square and a voiceover challenges viewers to prove they truly are passionate. A clock ticks down and the little girl is blown to smithereens. (Echoes of the famed "daisy" ad from the 1964 POTUS campaign.) An outraged media descends upon Christian, but their outrage is all over the map. Some denounce the videos' poor taste, some want to know why the child was blond and not representative of those more likely to be downtrodden, and still others accuse Christian of self-censorship when he announces the ad has been pulled and that he has tendered his resignation. This one has a very surprising resolution.

The Square is filled with questions about the limits of altruism and tolerance, including a performance art dinner for big donors in which simian-like actors pose as wild beasts. How tolerant can we be before our own atavistic instincts reemerge? As you might surmise, Christian is the biggest hypocrite of all—though he will be challenged in poignant ways.

Bang is terrific as Christian and Dominic West shows up speaking, from I can tell, fluent Swedish. Christopher Læssø is riveting as a black man who is never quite sure of whom to trust and whom to fear. Moss, however, is a noticeable weak link. That startled me as she has attracted attention for past performances and is considered by many to be a rising serious actress. In The Square though, she is clingy, libidinous, and shallow. That may be what the script called for, but if so, it doesn't work very well. The real question is whether audiences will get what is essentially a satirical drama, or simply get lost in all the unexplained weirdness. The Square won the Palme d'Or, but the Cannes festival delights in honoring quirky films. I liked this film, but it has holes and it's simply too outré for mass tastes. Is that another message?

Rob Weir

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