The Square




A very strange film from Sweden's Ruben Östlund cries out for a longer review than usual.

Square, The 

Terry Notary


It is no surprise that The Square should have gained distribution here since it not only carried off the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year but is the work of writer/director Ruben Östlund who gained international acclaim with his arthouse hit Force Majeure (2014). For my own part, I was more drawn to his earlier features, 2008's Involuntary and 2011's Play and would appear to be in the minority in failing to get on terms with The Square. Östlund is capable of creating striking individual sequences but there is no sense that they create a satisfactory whole.


The central character in The Square is Christian Nielsen (Claes Bang), a Dane who is the chef curator of a museum of contemporary art in Stockholm. Having read reviews from Cannes, I approached this film expecting a satire about modern art although I wondered why such a subject should have resulted in a film lasting some two and a half hours. The opening scene certainly fits this theme since it shows Christian being interviewed by an American journalist - Anne played by Elisabeth Moss - and here the high-flown jargon favoured by the art world is tellingly mocked. However, as portrayed here, the interview seems too short to be realistic and it is the first of several such moments in the film. Realism is not essential in satire but, if it is to be fully effective, the portrayal of its target can only gain from not seeming absurdly exaggerated and in this case other elements in the film will come to be a source of drama that echoes the realism of, say, the Romanian film Graduation.


Ahead of the title appearing we do learn that the museum's next exhibition will involve setting up a space - The Square - intended to represent a sanctuary of trust and caring, an area within which all those present will have equal rights and shared obligations.  By following this up in detail the film seems to confirm that mocking modern art will be central to the film, but that means that it seems odd when another plot line quite distinct and different in character emerges. This involves Christian losing his wallet and cell phone in the street as the result of a con trick by a woman calling out to him for help in order to distract him from what is actually going on. This thread is no mere subplot but plays a major part in the film. Christian, having successfully located the apartment block where his stolen phone now is, is talked into putting a threatening letter demanding its return through each and every door. The device works but leads to an innocent boy (Elijandro Edouard) becoming angry and disturbed because, being one of those living there, he is treated by his father as though he were indeed the thief. Although there's no doubt that much of the film is humorous in an idiosyncratic way (as individual as that of Östlund's fellow countryman Roy Andersson but rarely as telling as Andersson at his best), this fits uneasily with the fact that the plight of the unjustly accused boy becomes ever more dramatic as the film proceeds.


However, while the underlying social comment found here is not meant to be light-hearted (The Square increasingly shows the severe contrast between the lives of the haves and the have-nots in Swedish society), the satirical tone dominates and the scenes centred on the museum come to concentrate increasingly and ironically on a PR scheme to set up a video powerful enough make the upcoming exhibition something that will incite public comment. But for this to be effective the attitudes and behaviour satirised need to have a basic credibility. The Square fatally lacks that as it asks us to believe in PR men coming up with a major proposal that is presented in the vaguest terms and which then leads to a concept bound to be highly controversial being endorsed in Christian's absence. Elsewhere in the film surreal touches are to be found such as the presence of a chimpanzee in Anne's rooms, but that only adds to the film's changing tones becoming  a distraction.


Bizarre as I found this film, it did in fact remind me strongly of another movie that was a hit, the 2006 comedy from Germany, Toni Erdmann. That work too was inordinately long for a comedy, yet thanks to the skills of its director Maren Ade it never failed to sustain momentum at its own pace. Östlund is equally adroit in making the 151 minutes of The Square pass more quickly than one would expect and there's also a further parallel in that both films insert a rather unnecessary sex scene to play up to modern trends (this one between Christian and Anne leads to a later confrontation between them in the museum which feels terribly contrived).


The Square contains two episodes that can be thought of as set pieces, one uneasy and the other brilliant. The first of these occurs when a public discussion between Anne and an artist (Dominic West) is disrupted by comments from a person suffering from Tourette's Syndrome. This sequence seems to exist for its own sake but, intentionally or not, it is more embarrassing and disturbing than it is amusing (I should add that other scenes including one featuring a homeless woman are humorously presented to good effect but may be intended to unsettle the viewer at the same time). But it is the second set piece that works triumphantly: it comes in the film's climactic segment when museum donors at a banquet are assailed by a performance artist (Terry Notary) acting like a menacing ape. Quite why such an act would be arranged is far from clear, but thanks equally to Notary and Östlund this sequence takes on a memorable life of its own being truly powerful despite leaving naturalism behind. However, the film then goes on for another 20 minutes or so    with Christian suddenly showing a change of heart and this brings the film to a close in a mode far distant from the predominant satire but less effective than it should be because it follows on from material that belongs to a different world.


Claes Bang's role as Christian is very much the leading part and he is a non-actorly actor who suits the role admirably. Even so, as written and conceived by Östlund, The Square never cohered for me and failed to create what I assume was intended, namely an effective satire that was at the same time a disturbing critique of modern society. However one thing about it is totally and admirably consistent: the brilliant colour photography by Fredrik Wenzel.




Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Dominic West, Christopher Læssø, Elijandro Edouard.


Dir Ruben Östlund, Pro Erik Hemmendorff and Philippe Bober, Screenplay Ruben Östlund, Ph Fredrik Wenzel, Pro Des Josefin Åsberg, Ed Ruben Östlund and Jacob Secher Schulsinger, Costumes Sofie Krunegård.


Platform Produktion/Film i Väst/Essential Films/Sveriges Television/Arte France Cinéma-Curzon Artificial Eye.
151 mins. Sweden/France/Germany/Denmark/USA/Norway. 2017. Rel: 16 March 2018. Cert. 15.