‘The Square is the most divisive film of the year!’ There: I’ve provided a nice blurb for anyone who wants it about Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning film. But the blurb may not mean exactly what you think it means. I don’t mean to say that the film has divided audiences, though that certainly is true. I mean to say that the film divided me. Often, I found The Square interminably exasperating and intellectually enthralling at the exact same time.
The film follows Christian, who is the curator of an art museum in Sweden. He is overseeing the installation of several new art pieces, chief among them a work called ‘The Square.’ As you might imagine, ‘The Square’ is a white square on the ground. A plaque in front of it reads ‘The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.’ Do you get it? THE SQUARE IS SOCIETY!
I’m not trying to be derisive. The most common interpretation of Östlund’s film that I see from fellow critics seems to view it as a satirical attack on the art-world, but I don’t think it’s as simple as all that. For one thing, most of the ‘art’ on display in Christian’s museum is pretty passable as …interesting art. Here’s an example: One of the exhibits takes up an entire room. A neon sign on the wall says ‘YOU HAVE NOTHING,’ just like that, in all caps. On the floor at regular, equidistant intervals are equally high heaps of gravel.
It sounds ridiculous on paper, but when you see it… well, it may still be ridiculous, but I could totally imagine myself walking into that room at the Whitney museum, assigning it a meaning, having an emotional reaction, and continuing along. The Square is much deeper than ‘Har-dee-har, look at what passes for modern art!’ In this particular case, the real punchline comes later: a janitor enters the room on a Zamboni-like floor polisher, and he makes careful little turns to avoid the heaps of gravel. You gotta get the dirt off the floor, but don’t mistake it for the art!
If Östlund does go after low-hanging fruit, it’s wrapped up in the kind of man that Christian is. He’s a liberal, obviously—I mean, he drives a Tesla for chrissakes. But he’s one of those people for whom ‘liberal’ is more a kind of label than a way of life. Notice how he completely dismisses all street beggars until, oh, he has a particularly good day. Or notice how during a piece of performance art, the performance artist takes things too far and begins basically assaulting a woman. As the woman screams ‘Help me,’ Christian sits there, trying not to be noticed. It’s noteworthy that The Square premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, which is famous for its political art, but not so much for any resulting political action. (Unless you consider banning Lars von Trier for some ill-chosen words political action.)
If it sounds like I’m being chary about the plot, it’s because there isn’t much of one, in the traditional sense. Oh, things happen of course; Östlund satirises so much, it can feel a bit overwhelming. But most of The Square seems to want us to examine our own attitudes about artworks, and really get to the core of what we define art to be. Here’s the thing though… even when I found what I was watching vexing, I was never bored. Actually, I was grateful for the time to mull over what I thought Östlund was on about. I’ve been thinking about very little else in the time since I’ve seen it. He’s done this by making a film that sometimes works more like an intellectual exercise than art, but is so artful it can’t not be art… It’s truly endlessly fascinating.
I can already sense some impatience out there. Stop equivocating, Finfrock, I hear you saying. Is the movie very BAD, or is the movie very GOOD? I’m not sure I find that question relevant in this case. If it helps, I definitely plan to watch it again, several times if possible. Whether you personally find it bad or good may depend on whether you’re watching The Square or talking about it afterwards.