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Film Review: The Square

The Square (2017; Directed by Ruben Östlund)

One bracing, galvanizing scene in Swedish arthouse director Ruben Östlund’s ambitious and over-indulgent The Square fulfills and exemplifies its arch, too-clever-by-half satire of the contemporary art world and, by extension, contemporary neoliberal capitalist social conventions and moral behaviour. During a swanky black-tie gala dinner for Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum in a grand ballroom filled with wealthy donors and dignitaries, performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) provides the night’s cultural entertainment by approximating the movements, sounds, and predilections of an ape. What is initially greeted by the well-heeled attendees as an amusing if convincing trifle of an animal impersonation grows swiftly confrontational and uncompromising, a sharply uncomfortable demonstration of the aggressive trangression of social etiquette, personal space, and acceptable public conduct.

Skin-crawlingly gauche as the sequence becomes before its conclusion, it’s remarkable cinema from conception to execution. Based on similar, controversial dog-performance antics by Ukrainian/Russian artist Oleg Kulik (give his Wikipedia page a quick scan, it’s wild, unparodiable stuff), Östlund’s employment of Notary is inspired, as is the actor’s performance: a former Olympic gymnast and movement coach for The Hobbit Trilogy, Notary has become one of the most successful of Andy Serkis’s motion-capture acting disciples and has already played apes in two of this year’s most potent blockbusters, War of the Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island. His performance as Oleg in this scene distills all of Östlund’s self-satisfied ideas about Western democratic society’s smug hypocrisy and renders it as brazen, all-up-in-your-business agit-prop. It is, without question, one of the scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, The Square contains two-and-a-quarter hours of more scenes saying essentially the same thing, sometimes well, often less well, frequently with a repetitive sneer. Using the Swedish museum’s Danish curator Christian (Claes Bang) as its center, the film follows three storylines exploring and challenging social conventions. In one thread, an edgy marketing campaign for a forthcoming contemporary conceptual exhibition at the museum goes controversially viral when a video ad is released featuring something bad happening to a cute homeless girl; in another, Christian’s wallet and mobile phone are stolen, and he and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) become embroiled in a chaotic situation when they print and distribute accusing letters at an apartment building where the phone’s GPS tracking indicates the thieves are based; and finally, a one-night stand between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, wonderful as always) leads to a few more squirming scenarios.

Where Östlund’s previous social satire Force Majeure masterfully examined a breakdown of family connections and social assumptions as a result of an avalanche at a ski resort with deadpan humour and sneaking empathy for human weakness, The Square is a meaner, colder film that refuses to build back up what it tears down. When that tearing down is directed at the hopelessly puffed-up realm of contemporary art, it’s generally a punching-up delight. Dominic West appears as an arch, insufferably casual Julian Schnabel clone whose showpiece exhibition is called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and features, yes, actual piles of symmetrically-arranged gravel (a museum cleaner accidentally sweeps up a portion of one of the piles). His inflated image is punctured by the profane exclamations of a Tourette’s sufferer during a name-dropping Q&A appearance, then by Oleg, who satisfyingly chases this alpha-male rival from the ballroom (before things get really troubling). Anne asks Christian about a prior seminar about “the exhibitable and the non-exhibitable” with an online summary from the museum website that is indecipherable quasi-intellectual nonsense.

Less effective and more snide is Östlund’s commentary on bourgeois indifference to poverty and homelessness, which feeds into the faux-avant-garde controversy-baiting of the viral video ad. The Square doesn’t seriously examine the issue any more than the clip that it mocks does; for all of Östlund’s nicely-composed interspersed shots of beggars and street people, both the film and its diagetic YouTube video use their transient suffering as an arch cudgel to provoke a reaction from the bourgeois establishment. Perhaps this is intentional, and Östlund is aware that his beautifully-shot arty film, Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or firmly in hand, is as much a symptom of society’s painful lack of self-awareness and humaneness as it is an analgesic for it. The Square, to be fair to it, might be in on its own joke, especially given that the core titular art piece – a lighted square embedded in the pavement in front of the museum (in place of a bronze equestrian statue that is clumsily removed by shambolic workmen) that is a “sanctuary of trust and caring” where “we all share equal rights and obligations” – is based on an installation that Östlund himself collaborated on.

There is plenty to like about The Square. The performances, often semi-improvised at the director’s urging, are uniformly good. As a filmmaker, Östlund has a wit both verbally sharp and visually sly, and many of the film’s best gags are placed out of the centre of focus in the frame, to be discovered by the sharp-eyed. Some of these jokes are buried in the wardrobe: West’s Schnabel-esque artist wears what appears to be a pyjama onesie with a sport jacket over it, the nattily-attired Christian sports a knotted scarf like a culture-industry tie proxy, and Anne smooths down an admission sticker on her lapel while haltingly flirting with the curator. My favourites involve the judicious application of animals: the homeless girl in the viral video holds a button-nosed kitten, which merits a whole column of its own in the multi-page newspaper spread about the controversy; the museum director (Marina Schiptjenko) is followed everywhere by a perceptive Italian Greyhound, whose withering glances at the bloviating Christian in the wake of the video ad flap mirror her own; and Anne shares her apartment with an artistically-inclined chimpanzee whose presence she doesn’t acknowledge in the slightest.

When its satirical volleys land on target, The Square can be scabrously funny and definitely thought-provoking. But it’s a bit bloated and messy and even misdirected, often as frequently as it’s on track. The storyline revolving around the theft accusation letters begins with some good stuff lampooning Christian and Michael’s giddy wine-fed bravado at the scheme that devolves into panicked haste to get the awkward thing over with, but beats a dead horse thereafter. It’s supposed to be the equal of Force Majeure‘s rich central relationship-destabilizing scenario, but while it drives Christian to distracted anxiety and guilt, it doesn’t shift his axis in any serious way. The art-world satire is so much stronger, it seems a significant miscalculation for Östlund to spend so much of his film’s running time focused on something else.

But then this, too, is part and parcel of Ruben Östlund larger thesis in The Square. The negative public reaction to the exploding-girl viral video shifts from outrage at the violent insensitivity of the imagery to an excoriation of Christian and the museum for disowning the ideas therein as disturbing self-censorship by an institution supposedly dedicated to artistic free speech. It’s unsubtly suggested in this thread, and much more spectacularly in Oleg’s disturbing performance, that the purported public demand for art that is challenging and that subverts our social, cultural, and political assumptions is insincere, hypocritical, or just plain bullshit. Art that gets up in our grill and upends our understanding of our place in the world is not welcome unless it renders that upending in acceptable form, in digestible morcels. The Square is often not acceptable or digestible, to its superficial credit. But it can be a bit too hard to choke down, too. Is that more of a censure on its creator, or on the movie audience whose prejudices and assumptions he conceives himself and his film as challenging?

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Categories: Art, Culture, Film, Reviews
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