The Square

by Charles Nash

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday October 27, 2017

'The Square'
'The Square'  

In the opening scene of Ruben Östlund's newest film, "The Square," a curator of a contemporary art gallery, Christian (Claes Bang) is interviewed about his latest exhibit. The journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss) asks a question centered on the minimalism of the installation, to which Christian responds, "If you put it in a museum, does that make it art?"

The piece in question turns out to be the film's titular square, a 4x4 meter space in the middle of the institution's courtyard. The statement by the artist reads, "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations." The irony, as the film hammers home throughout its 142-minute runtime, is that nobody in the world (I mean, square) exists in such an ethical manner. In our heads, we're decent members of society, when in reality we are all hypocrites of our own making.

Winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, "The Square," sadly, feels like a blunt mishmash of similar themes that Östlund tackled more successfully in the scathingly hilarious "Force Majeure." We all perceive ourselves to be good people, but when faced with an uncertain situation that requires an act of selflessness, we show our true colors. "Majeure," however, was precise in how this theme applies to the gender dynamics in a fractured family, whereas "The Square" adapts these misanthropic ideas into the modern art world, with more haphazard results.

Primarily, this is due to the film's audacious, but episodic, structure. There isn't really a plot so much as a series of vignettes, which would be fine were they not so didactic and repetitive. Christian ignores the homeless unless he is in high spirits. A sexual encounter he has with Anne ends in a deeply uncomfortable dispute over a condom. When a child begs for help after an accident, his unjust sense of self-righteousness holds him back from responding to the boy's pleas.

The standout segment consists of Terry Notary as a character whose performance art as a wild ape goes completely off the rails at a gala dinner. (The fact that Notary is a stunt double known for motion capture performances, primarily for the recent "Planet of the Apes" films, adds to the film's self-reflexivity.) It's a tense, squirm-inducing sequence that most effectively examines how an artist's refusal to behave will ultimately have society rebelling against them. Does the artist push too far, or does the world automatically reject anything that goes beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone?

"The Square" seems to insist that both factors are true, but it's so self-aggrandizing in its satire that it can't help but feel a bit insincere. Its theses are certainly provocative, yet they're also jumbled in a manner that leaves everything undercooked. Rarely has a film felt so contradictorily ham-fisted in its ambiguity; in the end, it's all so pleased with itself that the stimulating conundrum at its core makes me want to brush it off than let it swim in my mind.