I once heard a graduation speaker implore her listeners to seek out “squishy experiences.” She defined them as moments where you don’t feel entirely comfortable or frightened, where the traditional fight or flight response does not apply. The Square, a new dark comedy by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, is made up entirely of squishy experiences. We are meant to feel awkward, to have our assumptions and biases challenged. Set mostly around a modern art gallery, Östlund raises the tension until our only recourse is to wince or laugh. Each scene unfolds elegantly, even if the satire has the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the face. This film unearths the ugliness of inequality, racism, and masculinity, making its points way more times than necessary.
The title refers to a feature of the gallery’s newest exhibition. There is a literal square set up in the adjacent courtyard, with the message, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The idea is that if you were to see suffering within the plane of its squared four meters, you must help whoever is in need. It is a needling premise for modern art, forcing the viewer to reckon with their repressed guilt over the tolerated inhumanity of modern life. Onlookers might tut at the exhibit, nodding how it’s a smart commentary, except Östlund does not let them off so easy. Claes Bang plays Christian, the hero and gallery’s chief curator, and the film puts him in awkward situations where he must reckon with his own privilege – a real life manifestation of the square’s premise.
Östlund mostly has a series of standalone scenes, barely connected together, so the main plot is the evolution of Christian’s thinking. On his way to the gallery, he encounters a woman who is screaming that a man is trying to kill her. Along with another man, Christian stops the would-be assailant, and Christian brags about his reinforced masculine instincts, at least until he realizes that his wallet and phone were stolen. Christian finds his phone with tracking app – it is in an apartment complex in a poor part of Stockholm – so rather than confront the thieves, he makes threatening fliers and distributes them everywhere in the building. The promotion of the new exhibit runs concurrent along this saga, with Christian trying to find novel, shocking ways to attract audiences beyond the usual “culture vultures.”
All this conversation unfolds on a meta-level, since The Square also seeks an audience beyond the typical art-house crowd. Östlund’s solution is to add recognizable actors: Elisabeth Moss plays an American journalist, while Dominic West plays another snobby artist (they get top billing, despite being in only a handful of scenes). Along with Christian, the camera frames them favorably – looking worldly and sophisticated – so Östlund’s critique comes by letting scenes play on longer than we might expect. An indicative scene where West’s character tries to discuss his work in front of an audience, except he’s interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s. The camera feels static, favoring wide shots over tense close-ups, giving us ample up to think about how the scene unfolds.
Everyone tries to proceed through involuntary curses and shouting, which tests the speaker’s patience. Should the audience member leave? Should the artist have some compassion? The Square offers no easy answers, and instead lets the scene devolve into a borderline obscene human comedy.
This film would fall apart without Bang’s performance, which strikes an uneasy balance between sympathy and admonishment. Christian can be a smug, megalomaniac – the aftermath of a sex scene leads to breathtakingly naked narcissism – but yet he is also urbane and introspective. The aftermath of his efforts, both as a vigilante and a curator, lead to painful results. The Square develops both plotlines organically, letting them comment on one another. Two children become minor characters, each with a different skin color, and of course how Christian relates to them are meaningful commentaries on the culture. This is indicative of the issues with The Square: Östlund does not trust his audience, to the point where repeated scenes and themes lose their power. At two and a half hours, the cumulative effect is like being asked, “Do you GET IT?” over and over again.
The themes of discomfort and tolerance reach their apotheosis in The Square virtuoso set piece, where a simple premise humiliates men into their basest instincts. There is a gala in the art gallery – everyone is in a tux, or a cocktail dress – and there is an announcement in English that a dangerous predator is about to join them. A man appears without a shirt; this is Oleg (Terry Notary), and he is impersonating an aggressive male ape. He stalks the tables, making everyone uncomfortable, daring someone to engage him. It is an intense, oddly funny sequence, and ends with finality that Luis Buñuel would appreciate. Östlund does not have a dim view of the cosmopolitan elite, since he understands how they have become so complacent, but his frustration is palpable.
The Square won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, which says more about the Cannes jury than perhaps they intended. They must have saw themselves in the characters – removed from the riff-raff, cultured to a fault – and in their guilt, championed a film as a form of contrition. The milieu of an art gallery already created reflexive commentary, so this award adds an irony that is probably not lost on Östlund. I like to think he was surprised, laughing to himself about how he pulled one over on the jury. As both a film and sheer provocation, The Square forces us to look at our own lives, and what comforts we take for granted. It probably won’t make us behave any differently, but it’s to the film’s credit that we will feel bad for maintaining the same disgraceful habits.