There is an inherent belief that art has the ability and responsibility to contribute to the betterment of the society in which it is created, to provide a commentary to what exists around it. That belief has never gone away, but it has evolved to allow a passiveness in audiences - a situation where viewing a piece of socially-conscious art allows you to absolve yourself of guilt or complicity simply by viewing it. This is one of the many provocations that Swedish director Ruben Östlund poses with his Palme d’Or winner ‘The Square’. After turning his wonderfully distinct eye over the mechanics of married life in ‘Force Majeure’ (2014), he throws his net wider to dissect the mechanics of human communication and interaction with a new modern classic that is wonderfully ridiculous and quietly pointed.
Christian (Claes Bang), the handsome and beloved curator of a major Swedish contemporary art museum, is preparing to unveil a new exhibition built around an artwork called The Square, which examines the responsibilities of individuals in a community to themselves and each other. One morning, while walking to work, his wallet and phone are stolen. More for his own entertainment than anything, Christian goes to bizarre lengths to get them back, but the consequences of his actions and an unexpected circus of absurdity around the exhibition send his comfortable existence spiralling out of his control.
I can think of few films that manage the balancing act of outrageous comedy and astute social commentary with as much skill and cinematic confidence as ‘The Square’. From the moment it begins, it invites the audience to relax and enjoy the wondrous succession of awkward exchanges and gags, before carefully and meticulously moving further into a kind of surreal absurdism where the intentions of the film slowly come to light. ‘The Square’ is a film of contrasts, Östlund juxtaposing images of wealth and privilege against poverty and homelessness, traditional concepts of high art against bawdy and immature behaviours. The Square itself is intended to provoke in its simplicity, but it is a stimulus intended for the elite, whose economic and social privilege allow them to subscribe to these ideas of fidelity between all of us without ever having to actually put it into practice. The art in the film is to simply be there, an object to be vaguely viewed or to sit in the background, to be shown off as something to covet before being used as an ashtray. In many ways, the aloofness of the art in Christian’s museum is as stifling to our ability to communicate as social media and mobile phones, another trope the film plays with to wonderfully comic effect - they all suggest an open channel of discussion but end up being vacuums of nothingness. ‘The Square’ highlights our increasing self-obsession and self-interest, the widening gulf between classes and social groups, the languages that keep them all in their place and the consequences when those languages clash, but it doesn’t offer a solution to these problems. The great achievement of ‘The Square’ is that it actually manages to do exactly what the art world it is criticising cannot seem to do - connect, provoke and demand.
SWITCH: 'THE SQUARE' TRAILER
The remarkable thing about ‘The Square’ though is that it is able to remain incredibly entertaining and cinematic whilst also pondering these enormous ideas. Östlund’s command of the film is extraordinary, especially with the minute tonal shifts it requires. He and cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel give the film a gorgeous "prestige foreign film" look, but are unafraid to fill the frame with bawdy comedy or surreal imagery akin to the great Buñuel films. The comedy all serves to build an impending sense of dread, small bursts appearing at the surface before erupting with glorious ferocity. This is a film of big ambitions both visually and thematically, and it successfully achieves those ambitions with tremendous confidence. There’s a palpable sense of danger with this film, and its pitch-perfect, blackly comic tone only works to enhance that.
Whatever the joke, the remarkable cast are entirely in on it. Claes Bang is fantastic as Christian, an intelligent, attractive and impressive man whilst also equally a childish, fumbling idiot. He moves through the film with an increasing look of wonderful befuddlement, initially charming before you realise this apparent ignorance masks his own sense of self-preservation. In lesser hands, this kind of character might not have worked, someone you have to like and find pathetic all at the same time, but Bang achieves this with tremendous ease and a great sense of humour. The supporting cast are simply wonderful, particularly a small but stand-out performance from Elizabeth Moss as Anne, an arts reporter that ends up becoming involved with Christian. Their scenes together are amongst the most memorable and bizarre, particularly for the peculiar environmental provocations Östlund throws at them.
The great achievement of ‘The Square’ is that it actually manages to do exactly what the art world it is criticising cannot seem to do - connect, provoke and demand.
You could spend hours and hours dissecting the many ideas within ‘The Square’ and barely scratch the surface, so much so that I inevitably knew this review would never say everything I'd want it to. I found myself overwhelmed by the sheer thematic scope of it, and the irreverence with which it threw them at us. ‘The Square’ is a masterful piece of cinema, preposterously funny and endlessly strange, culminating in moments of genuine awe. Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the most unique voices of his generation, his command of the craft and his work in this film absolutely impeccable. I’m already dying to see it again, just so I can keep peeking in its hidden draws, unlocking more surprises and rolling around in stitches at its endless wit and invention.