Writer/director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure is sadly still on my must-see list, but based on the strong positive reaction of that film I jumped at the chance to see his latest effort The Square. An all-too-accurate look into the egocentric posturing of the art world, The Square is a tantalizing look at the hypocrisy of our attitudes towards our fellow human beings.
Christian (Claes Bang) is a well-respected director of an art museum that stages cutting-edge and provoking exhibits. His latest acquisition, “The Square,” is just that. A lit square outlined on the floor with a simple plaque that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The piece is meant to be a reminder of humanity’s need to look out for each other and assist in times of trouble. The overarching irony of this statement is Christian’s inability to take responsibility for his own actions towards others throughout the film, while simultaneously pointing a finger at everyone else through the lens of this upcoming exhibit. When he is interviewed by American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) and she asks for clarification on a statement he gave in an article about the meaning of the exhibit, his response is equally (and humorously) baffling. The explanation of human kindness doesn’t need to be wrapped in moral philosophizing but it makes for a sexier pull quote.
Östlund’s infiltration of the art world’s upper crust is pointed criticism of the obliviousness that extends through all layers of society. After being interviewed, Christian runs into a situation on the street where a woman is being pursued by an angry man. She begs another passerby for help, and reluctantly this man intercedes but not before demanding that Christian also assist. The two men are able to thwart the woman’s attacker, but instead of escorting the woman to safety, they take turns congratulating themselves on a job well done. It’s an interesting tweak on the idea that good deeds also benefit the giver, by taking it to a pompous extreme. In a further twist of cosmic karma, Christian realizes his wallet and phone were stolen during the altercation.
The quest for the missing items leads Christian down a spiraling staircase of misdeeds towards his fellow man as the film progresses. He does question the insanity of his actions at times, but proceeds to be cruel because he believes such measures are justified. He’s a world-famous art director, dammit, who challenges the minds of the public. He’s a “good person” who doesn’t deserve such inconveniences. Even if it means he must subject lower income people to the indignity of being accused as thieves, or reduce Anne to being a crazy woman who’s after his sperm in order to have his baby after a one-night stand (yes, such a thing is blatantly implied).
All this social anxiety culminates in the film’s climax, where a group of well-to-do museum elites and benefactors sit down to a fancy gala dinner complete with live entertainment. The performance is interactive, where a man acting like an ape proceeds to manhandle the audience. It’s innocent enough at first, but continues to get more violent as a woman attendee is dragged to the floor by her hair and is almost assaulted before a group of tuxedoed men rush to her aid. The scene is terribly uncomfortable but in a way that forces the audience to look at it’s own ugliness and for once not turn a blind eye.
The Square is worth multiple viewings, for its performances (Elisabeth Moss is fantastic) and Östlund’s intriguing filmmaking. It’s a perfect reminder of what humanity is capable of in all its many facets.
The Square opens today at the Ritz Five in Philadelphia.
Author: Jill Malcolm
Jill is happiest attending midnight screenings with other crazy film fans at her local theater. Her other passions include reading, traveling to faraway places, cat videos, pugs, and jalapeño peppers. She is co-founder of the blog Filmhash.