Fantastic Fest 2017: The Square Review
9.5 out of 10
Claes Bang as Christian
Elisabeth Moss as Anne
Dominic West as Julian
Terry Notary as Oleg
Christopher Læssø as Michael
Directed by Ruben Östlund
The Square Review:
The Square, winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, covers similar thematic ground as Ruben Östlund’s last film, Force Majeure – these are films about how we fail to live up to our convictions, in ways that aren’t even apparent to ourselves. In Force Majeure, a man who truly believes he is a good husband and father fails his family at a crucial moment. The Square is much more ambitious, and more cutting in how it shines a mirror to those who would claim to be morally superior, but in reality wear their ethics like they were walking on a runway. Most of the people who make up the character geography of this film never have moments of clarity, even when it is literally being pushed in their faces. But Östlund does it in such a comedic manner that for much of the film, the audience is too busy laughing at the awkward humor to realize that we ourselves may need to examine our own motives and our own empathy.
On the surface, The Square is about a famous art curator, Christian (Claes Bang), as he tries to promote and get installed an art installation in his museum in Stockholm. Called “The Square,” it is a simple-lit square in the front of the museum with an inscription that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” But it is what is happening outside the Square that is the movie’s thrust and focus – first Christian is robbed, and decides to pursue these thieves in an unusual manner that has repercussions later on. He is also trying to figure out his relationship with an American reporter, Anne (Elizabeth Moss), because she is behaving very oddly around him – almost as if the tables are turned in the dichotomy of a normal relationship. An ad campaign for the installation unexpectedly goes viral in a very unwelcome way. Finally, another artist, Oleg (Terry Notary) has an installation designed to provoke its audience, and how that audiences responds leads to an amazing sequence towards the end of the film.
Much of The Square is episodic, full of vignettes as we see Christian go throughout his daily life. And while Christian thinks he is a good person, and believes that this particular installation has something to say about the world and our place in it, Christian cannot see past himself to realize, to put it bluntly, how utterly full of crap that he is. There are homeless people all around the museum that Christian walks around every day, barely sparing a look as he heads to work. During one scene, when he decides to help one of the homeless out, the moment Christian is taken out of his safety zone, he reacts badly. All the while, Christian is convincing himself that he is a good person – raising his kids, and making bold statements. But his morals are simply fashion, and nothing that Christian truly feels in his heart. It is only when things go badly for him that Christian takes a deep look at himself – but not too deep; after all, he’s done his good deed for the day. Surely it is the world that is nasty and cruel, not him. He’s trying to help things, not make things worse.
And all the while, Ruben Östlund twists the knife a bit more, shines the light a little more brightly, exposing how even in our day-to-day actions we are complicit in this world whether we like it or not. But Östlund does it in such a funny, absurdist manner that as we are laughing, the message is insidiously sneaking its way past our own personal moral shields, asking us to just step back and look at your own actions. The Square isn’t judging, isn’t pointing fingers. It simply shows, and allows us to make our own conclusions. But the way The Square sows us these moments of clarity is done in such a humorous way that makes the medicine go down easier. This is a movie I’ve been thinking about fairly non-stop since I’ve seen it – as we walk around with blinders on, confident that we are good people because we read the right news articles and appreciate the right art, we fail to see the plank in our own eyes. Or, as the movie shows us, people can scream and yell at a particularly violent video commercial we just say without even questioning the point behind it. We can wrap ourselves in offensive fictions yet still not make the connection to our daily lives.
This film casts a wide net, and has big things to say, but gracefully makes us laugh as it says it. There are moments of strangeness throughout, but it all connects in the end. We are all culpable in this world. What we do about it is up to us. And perhaps the film isn’t asking us to do anything, but simply recognize when it happens, to not make those same mistakes and not to try to better things just to make ourselves look good. It questions the motivations of seemingly decent people and asks us to question our own This is a brilliant comedy, that challenges while it entertains, and totally deserving of its Palme d’Or accolades.