In 2014, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund had a great success with Force Majeure. This film portrays a family whose blissful ski vacation is jeopardized by what appears to be a life-threatening avalanche. The husband bolts in panic, leaving his wife to fend for herself and their two children. Although the avalanche turns out to be minor, damage to the couple’s marriage is not.
Östlund explores the same theme-an individual’s actions versus what is expected by the social contract- in his new film, The Square. His scope is wider this time, and this causes narrative continuity to suffer at times. Fortunately, The Square as a whole is sufficiently compelling to overcome these moments.
The ironically named Christian (Claes Bang) is a well-regarded curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm. Although he gives vocal support to progressive causes, Christian is someone who deals better with humanity in the abstract. His behavior to homeless people is generally callous. When he buys a fast-food meal for a homeless woman, he ignores her request about holding the onions. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, tossing it at her.
Early scenes in the film are devoted to a new show at the museum. It is an installation called The Square, which reminds visitors of their need to support and care for each other. The installation and its entreaties to better behavior contrast markedly with Christian’s situation.
While walking to work one day, Christian is robbed of his wallet and cell phone. Furious, he puts all his efforts into an ill-advised scheme to recover his property. Christian’s obsession with catching the thief means he pays little attention to his work. He signs off on an equally ill-advised promotional plan for The Square, placing the museum’s future-and his own-in an extremely risky position.
Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, a journalist who interviews Christian and later spends the night with him. Christian treats it as a casual fling; Anne wants a relationship. You might think Östlund is setting Anne’s character up to be the good woman whom the divorced Christian regrets passing by. Trouble is, most of the time Anne is just as opportunistic and conflicted as Christian. The viewer is left thinking one of them dodged a bullet but unable to decide which.
Another opaque area of the plot concerns apes. Anne has a pet ape, a docile sort who uses colored pens to sketch. Later in the film, Östlund includes a chilling set piece in which a performance artist (Terry Notary) plays an ape for a group at a gala dinner. Are these two depictions of apes a statement on the animal nature of human beings? Are they a comment on animal performance exhibits (like the one recently removed from the Guggenheim)? It is hard to say, given how little context is presented.
Fredrik Wenzel, cinematographer on Force Majeure, is back for this film. His work is stunning, and Östlund (who also edited) makes the most of it. The visuals in this film play a big role in establishing the different worlds that Christian inhabits.
You may not always comfortable watching The Square-and you probably will not be while Notary is onstage- but you will always be engaged. And thinking.
Theme: High Concept Satire
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