Film Review: The Square (2017)
Directed by: Ruben Östlund
Review by: Belle McIntyre
This droll Swedish film surgically skewers the absurdities at the core of the hyped-up, self-satisfied, insular contemporary art world. Who knew that the Swedes had a quirky, yet subtle sense of humor. The film is centered on Christian (Claes Bang), the suavely sophisticated, relentlessly hip curator of a major Contemporary Art Museum who delivers “artspeak” effortlessly whenever he is approached in his professional role. He is good at his job and apparently takes his work seriously, albeit somewhat dispassionately. There is a sense that he knows he is playing a role which has been scripted for him and he is enjoying the perks and privileges of unexamined entitlement. That he drives a Tesla is considered as a mark of moral superiority. He pays lip service to compassion for the less fortunate, while heedlessly stepping around or over them on the sidewalks outside the museum.
As he guides the museum in search of the ever-newer, more outrageous stretches into areas which can rationally be called art and how that can be commodified or branded and sold to the uninitiated public, he encounters all manner of surreal events in his personal life, which somehow mirror the events of the museum. As his smallest missteps seem to have cascading bad outcomes and close calls, we begin to realize we are in an absurdist nightmare.
In one of the opening scenes, we witness the cavalier dismantling of the traditional equestrian statue in the plaza of the museum to make way for the new installation of the eponymous Square. During the process the statue is dropped off its pedestal and broken on the cobblestones to the concern of apparently no one. What is cause of major panic, however, is the discovery that significant quantities of the dirt which are part of an installation consisting of mountains of dirt, have been vacuumed up by accident. What to do about it threatens to become a major catastrophe for the museum. Christian remains unruffled. What does ruffle his feathers is the theft of his cellphone pulled off via an elaborate charade which has made him feel embarrassed and impotent. The lengths to which he goes to obtain the return of his cell phone escalate way out of proportion and cause out-sized problems for him personally.
After a night of museum-organized debauchery inside the museums own walls leads to inebriated casual sex between Christian and an American journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss) in her apartment which seems to be shared with an extremely well—behaved chimpanzee who goes unremarked on by either of the humans. This turns into a stalker/revenge episode for Christian. There is an alternate version of this which occurs in the museum at a formal dinner for patrons. A performance artist acting out as a Neanderthal unleashed in their midst appears to go thoroughly rogue menacing and physically assaulting the guests and requiring aggressive counter measures. Christian appears to ride through all of these seemingly deal-breaking disasters, unscathed and with great aplomb.
It is finally due to his inattention to museum business which allows a horrible PR fiasco to finally tumble our hero from grace. In the hands of incredibly inept advertising hacks trying to commodify the new conceptual work, The Square, they are allowed to produce a campaign of such appalling offensiveness to one and all. The hapless Christian is forced to try to justify the indefensible. And when he refuses to defend it against its obvious awfulness he is even thwarted in that by those who deplore his not defending his right to free expression. That is his tipping point. The film is truly Buñuellian at it finest. I found it thoroughly riveting and on target.
It’s messages are many and ambiguous in the true spirit of surrealism. It is seriously clever, smart and entertaining. Claes Bang has all the animal appeal of Clive Owen. Very easy on the eye. There’s a lot to love.