'The Square' Skewers High Society with Rousseau on the Big Screen
“YOU HAVE NOTHING” looms in white neon lights over the shoulder of an art curator as he answers a softball question for a TV interview about the biggest challenge he faces in running a museum. His answer?
Christian, the hero of The Square—Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning film that has just been released to the public in France, soon to arrive stateside in select cities after taking the festival circuit by storm earlier this year—is not necessarily lying. Indeed, a man of his status and in his position is perhaps the most stressed by cordial fundraisers and not much else. Östlund, on the other hand, almost immediately juxtaposes these haute bourgeoisie problems with lingering close-ups of homeless residents of Stockholm and charity volunteers being rejected over an ostensibly simple request.
“Save a life?”
Christian, played by Claes Bang with high cheekbones and perfectly quaffed hair, is an exceptional man—on paper, at least—but just like almost everybody else, he ignores the homeless and the charitable pleas for a few Krona.
The plot of The Square, which relies heavily on conceptual vignettes in a loose chronology, is mainly set in motion by a clever pick pocketing of Christian, who had altruistic intentions by trying to save a woman from a domestic abuser while being fleeced the entire time. Suddenly his desire to help a stranger, for once, is reversed to being fervently hell bent on enacting revenge, setting in motion a chain of bizarre yet entirely revelatory events that skewer modern society.
Much of the film is too rich and unexpected to spoil, but a sense of its critique comes in the second question of an American TV journalist named Ann, portrayed with what has now become an unsurprising homerun performance by Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men and the Handmaid’s Tale. After asking what the greatest challenge of running a museum is, Ann, genuinely perplexed, pulls out the pamphlet of a recent exhibition at the museum, aptly entitled “Exhibition/non-Exhibition.”
“What is the topos of the exhibition/non-exhibition in the cultural moment of mega-exhibition?” Ann asks, adding, “Sorry, I’m clearly not as smart as you.”
Christian, with the neon illuminated “YOU HAVE NOTHING” moniker behind him—supposedly part of a non-non-exhibition—responds with the all important yet brutally clichéd quandary of what makes a work of art. For instance, if we were to take Ann’s purse and put it in a museum, does that make it a work of art? You get the idea.
The hyperbolic and all the while accurate depiction of the elite art world may be nauseating enough were it not for the barrage of homeless people’s unanswered requests for help juxtaposed with it. Yet the art world is not the only target of Östlund’s ire. Millennials also come under fire in a masterful dual performance by Daniel Hallberg and Martion Sööder, who play the social media marketing team for the museum. Their attempt at an “Ice Bucket Challenge” viral campaign fails miserably, in no small part because it involves a child exploding in the Square installation.
And then there is the ostensible subject of the film itself, The Square. The Square is simply a neon illuminated chord forming a perfect square in a cobblestone patch with a plaque that posits a Rousseuaian idea that within its bounds, we are obligated to treat each other equally and are compelled to help one another. Forget the beggars in the street or the needs of charity programs—this is a good idea to wrestle with exclusively in the realm of aesthetic contemplation. Slowly, it becomes apparent that The Square’s characters cannot help but constantly find themselves outside of The Square, particularly in shots of swirly stairwells that form squares in Christian’s apartment and the public housing complex where he mistakenly tries to enact revenge.
The flip side of The Square’s Rousseauian undertones—without requiring a crash course in the French Revolution or “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains—comes in the film’s most memorable and perhaps iconic scene. Enter Terry Notary, an actor who primarily works as a “movement coach,” specifically for the portrayal of animals in CGI films (he’s best known for his role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Notary plays Oleg, a brute and buff model for a video installation about man in his natural state, which, for the purposes of the projection loop, is simply him staring into a camera, lack-jawed, huffing and puffing in loud enough that it permeates throughout the museum.
But for the sacred donors of the museum, a special treat comes in order when Oleg makes an in-person appearance at a gala dinner. There, he meets Julian, played by Dominic West of The Wire, who purports to be an artist primarily interested not in the material of art, but in the viewer’s reaction to it and its context. Yet when confronted with a living, breathing work of art in Oleg at the gala, Julian has little tolerance for what he sees as shenanigans, and quickly pays a steep and humiliating price for it.
The Square may not offer any answers to society’s ailments, but it certainly evokes a powerful reaction to them. While those may range among viewers from extreme discomfort to nihilistic ecstasy, Östlund succeeds in cutting to the core of what makes 21st Century life so hypocritical, and why, despite all of our gadgets and innovations, we may really have nothing after all.