Is everything you see in a museum art?
The Square is a frank and humbling look at individual lives within a society full of dishonesty and privilege. It is a dark, satirical mirror of the modern art. Claes Bang, whose past credits include The Bridge, plays an art curator for a prestigious museum in Stockholm, Sweden. He gets mugged one morning and sets out to find the thief, vigilante-style. Elisabeth Moss plays Ann, an American journalist who at first glance appears naïve but is determined to overcome her insecurities and feel empowered if only she can get Christian to remember her name first.
The Square is a comedy, among other things. Claes Bang does a brilliant job at making it easy for us to laugh at his character. Christian is composed but awkward, forgets names of women he sleeps with and drives a Tesla. We see Christian try and make sense of a bonobo ape in one of the funniest scenes in the film, which makes us wonder how he has survived this long. At work, the pressure is also on the rise and what starts as a marketing strategy for a new art installation – the square – ends with a media scandal and a personal crisis.
The film’s Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Picture and the Palme d’Or award at Cannes successfully secured the its critical acclaim. Ruben Östlund, writer and director of The Square, is best known for Force Majeure, which bagged the Best Film award at the Swedish 50th Guldbagge Awards. Östlund, as told to Screen Daily, says the idyllic image of Scandinavia is changing and The Square is an exploration of that change. The film was inspired by Östlund’s own experiences, including a stolen cell phone, a Tourette’s outbreak and an artist-turned-wild-beast in a roomful of eloquent people. The most important art piece – the white square – began as an actual installation in 2015. It was open to the public to use as a sanctuary and has since been installed in other cities across Scandinavia.
The film starts by asking what is art, but the question eventually morphs into another dilemma – how far can you hide behind the notion of free speech? The Square’s sardonic and terrorising nature feels socially realistic at times, with images of beggars on the streets of Stockholm reminding viewers about the voiceless in our society. The film’s treatment of the media as a circus lands a truthful punch, evidenced by ongoing political scandals of the past year.
The film causes panic-induced sweaty hands and makes you remember what good comedy feels like. Bobby McFerrin’s song Improvisació 1 acts as a narrative glue and sets the contradictory tone of the film. Sharp endings and long takes somehow make a coherent whole. The film leaves many uncrossed Ts and undotted Is and figuratively pokes you until it starts to hurt. And it succeeds.
The Square questions a lot, but it won’t ask you to define what good cinema is – it will show you.