The Square

Sweden (2017) Dir. Ruben Östlund

The world of modern art has always been ripe for satire and lampooning whilst the way people treat their fellow human beings is also a fecund subject, but there is little obvious overlap. That hasn’t stopped Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund from having a go but is The Square art or a crime against our sensibilities?

Christian (Claes Bang) is the curator of the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm and is to host a new interactive installation called The Square designed to encourage altruism and the kindness of strangers. Initially behind the concept, Christian finds his views on social tolerance and communal spirit challenged after he finds himself a victim of a scam where he is robbed of his phone and wallet.

Actually, there is a bit more to the film than this but uncharacteristically for Östlund he is unable to bring them together in a cohesive manner, leaving many threads unresolved and others unexplained. The problem is that while art does appear to be the main target the selfishness of people towards the less fortunate in society is the secondary that eventually becomes the focal point of the tale.

Whether that is a good or bad thing is dependent on how much one is invested in these subplots, making the wait between the resuming of the story either painful or painless, and ultimately if the rewards are worth waiting for. In other words, this film really didn’t need to be 2 ½ hours long and debate will rise over what could, and should, have been excised to streamline the narrative.

For this writer it is the many needlessly protracted scenes of quotidian actions that either detailed nothing of interest or simply outstayed their welcome. The biggest culprit is performance artist Terry Notary’s act of pretending to be a wild ape at a dinner for the museum’s patrons. There is nothing wrong with it and Notary is good but it is far too long; the silence and discomfort of the audience is shared by the viewer wondering when it’s going to end.

The worst thing is that it is never referenced again thus has little to overall relevance to the plot, aside from its shock ending which could have been achieved in half the time.  I know others will disagree and will argue – with validity – the subtext is that art is meant to be challenging or Östlund was addressing the snobbery of the pretentious types who will fall for any old claptrap, but time management is also healthy to observe.

Regarding the theme of social empathy and helping others, the seemingly congenial and charitable Christian is gradually exposed as a self-obsessed bonehead, unaware of the vertiginous fall about to hit him. The stealing of his wallet and phone was masterfully executed in broad daylight by a gang of ordinary looking folk exploiting Christian’s good nature to respond to the call of help.

Christian tracks his phone via a GPS signal app to a nearby apartment block and decides to post a letter through each door calling out the thief and demanding the return of his property. Shockingly, this pays off and Christian gets his things back but the fall out of this sees an angry young boy (Elijandro Edouard) who claims his parents have accused him of being the thief and he demands an apology or he will unleash chaos on Christian.

Not that Christian needs any help there because this is just another woe to blight his life among a gradually building litany of nightmares. There is his steamy one night stand with American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) that ends with an argument over who throws out his used condom, creating a new line in sexual politics, and the arrival of Christian’s squabbling daughters.

Most damaging of all is the dangerously provocative video made by a PR firm to promote The Square that enjoys over 300,000 hits but offends everyone with its disturbing content, threatening to backfire on Christian as the museum’s creator. This somehow turns into an argument over self-censorship and the loss of freedom of speech yet the video itself, whilst a powerfully on point does ask a more pertinent question about where the line is between art and sensitivity.

If Östlund has an answer to this it isn’t shared with the rest of us, at least not in my observation. Again, it might just me being dense and missing the point, yet with so many extraneous distractions I might not be entirely guilty of this. For someone whose oeuvre has shown him to be a perceptive and sympathetic chronicler of modern life, the absence of likeable characters to offset the perfidious in this film is a notable misstep for Östlund.

Whilst the main targets for his caustic view are clearly defined, it isn’t so clear which side the joke lies. For example, a Q and A session with an artist played by Dominic West, is interrupted by a man with Tourette’s. The rest of the audience get annoyed and call for his removal; the host squirms in her seat; West’s character finds it all amusing. Is this being sympathetic towards Tourette’s or an excuse for getting comedy capital from it?

The performances of the cast can’t be faulted and the presentation is oddly spellbinding via the inventive cinematography that tends to be a bit too arty for its own good, so Östlund has perfected a way to get the easily baffled to stay the distance – Curzon however can go to hell AGAIN for not subtitling the English dialogue (most of which is obscured by background noise).

Being a fan of Östlund’s work I was excited to see that The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2017 but maybe that should have been a warning sign that I may not agree. I honestly can’t say if this is a good or bad film, just one that could have got its potent message across is less time.