Film Review: The Square
I went to see Robert Östlund’s film THE SQUARE expecting a satirical gibe at post-modernist art, and wondering what new it could offer. From half-cows in formaldehyde to unmade beds to the tools and carpenter’s horses blocking the stairs in a staid old Swiss museum (Why have the workmen left their things here, I wanted to know, and was told dismissively, that’s an installation) doesn’t all this satirize itself? I was both right and wrong. The art satire is there, and very funny, but it’s also a vehicle for something more. Like an acclaimed earlier Östlund film, FORCE MAJEURE, this is about tests of character, about morality, about fundamental questions of courage and trust.
The story begins with Christian (Claes Bang), the handsome and celebrated director of a very avant-garde museum, being interviewed by a journalist (Elizabeth Moss). She is curious about what makes an object art. He asks: Is your handbag art? She thinks not. He takes the handbag and puts it on the museum floor. Now it is or can be. Context is all. (I could not help wondering if Elizabeth Moss’s kitchen-scissors-chop hairdo is also a statement; if an expensive hairdresser has made this mess, is it the new chic?)
When Christian leaves the museum and joins a hurrying crowd, a young woman runs past him crying for help. No-one pauses. No-one even pays attention; but when a pursuing man threatens to catch her, Christian and one other man do stop him. The pursuer curses and flees. The two heroes, alone in their bravery and compassion, hug each other, though no names are exchanged. When Christian gets home, he finds his phone and wallet are gone.
But now I must describe the square of the title; it is simply a square we see punched out of the pavement and outlined in stones. We are given the artist’s explanation of her work. The square is to be a place of kindness and compassion, of help for anyone who enters it. The hungry one will be fed, the thirsty one given water, the lonely find company. Whatever you lack, if you step into the square, someone will bestow it.
We go back to Christian, who really wants his phone and wallet returned. His assistant has an idea. They have located the tenement where the phone must be, so why not deliver a threatening letter to every flat there, demanding the stolen goods’ recovery. However, when they reach the tenement, the two men lose their nerve and argue over who should post the letters. Finally and very nervously Christian does. The phone and wallet shortly reappear but so does an irate little boy demanding an apology for the insult to his family in accusing them of theft.
Tests of trust or courage continue through the film. There is the obligatory bonking scene, with Christian and the journalist – but this one has a twist. (Forgive me if there’s an obscene pun here). Done with their sex, the two quarrel over who should dispose of the filled condom, each insisting on doing it and finally, like children, pulling, one at each end. What on earth is this about, I thought, and then something dawned; is Christian afraid, as he is such an attractive and successful alpha male, the woman wants to use his sperm to impregnate herself? Bizarre as this sounds I can think of no other explanation.
Or again: Christian, spending rare free time with his daughters, goes to a gymnastic exhibition at their school. The kids are very skilled; their handstands and pyramids display courage and unfailing confidence – in each other. Is Lund saying here that children, at least these children, have the bravery and trust the adults lack?
Also, in one of the funniest scenes, a cleaning machine moves warily between the heaps of earth or sand that are some famous artist’s installation. For all the care, some heaps are disturbed, as Christian’s staff come anxiously to tell him. Just put some dirt back, is the answer and solution. One wonders, is the artist’s trust of the museum to protect his carefully positioned regular heaps being betrayed here? Does Christian care? Does Christian know how absurd some of his exhibitions are?
In his own apartment house, Christian has a final confrontation with the persistent little boy from the tenement who keeps turning up. Christian pushes him down a flight of stairs and we hear his repeated cries for help. I expected to see an injured child at the bottom of the steps; but it seems these must be calls from Christian’s conscience, calls in his head, for the boy has disappeared. The scene ends with Christian, in a conscience crisis, scrabbling frantically through heaps of rubbish to find the boy’s address which he had thrown away. When he gets to the flat whose number the boy gave, he is told there is no child living there. Another scam? This particular episode did leave me mystified; but then, nothing in this film is quite what it first seems.
I won’t describe the film’s most dramatic and disturbing scene, the evening of performance art, so as not to spoil the truly harrowing suspense; but the issues of courage and trust apply here as well. To sum up, everything we see outside the square is the opposite of what should happen inside the square, is the picture of a corrupt, false, cowardly and indifferent world.
We never see anyone step into the square. What we do see is the advertising for this installation and for the museum. Two young publicists, asked by Christian to do something more in tune with current youth, produce a video. A small toddler holding her doll is shown entering the square, an image of trusting innocence; she promptly explodes into smithereens. So here is a crowning irony. The square, meant as a magic place of kindness and trust, is advertised by a scene of ultimate betrayal and horrific death. The video goes viral and is too much even for Christian’s followers. After the fury over this video and over the fiasco of the performance art evening, Christian is compelled to resign.
The square in THE SQUARE clearly doesn’t work, either as a magic sanctuary or a piece of art. THE SQUARE however works brilliantly on all its levels; and that is praise indeed.
Volume 33.no.1 September / October 2018 pp 35-36
11 thoughts on “Film Review: The Square”
Thanks to your review of The Square, I saw it and couldn’t agree more on what you wrote.
Trailer of The Square:
No link for this film in Youtube, like the one for Ani?
Finally a film worth watching! Thank you Francis for your review, otherwise I would have never discovered it.
Hi Cala, glad you saw the film and liked it.
Thanks to your review I felt compelled to watch The Square, which I found in Netflix. I thought it was terrible! Maybe it works better on a large cinema screen, but it felt like something out of the 90s, totally disconnected as in a bad dream. The acting was poor quality and the general atmosphere appeared to be affected and contrived However, this artificiality is also a real part of the art world, though I find it somewhat disconcerting.
“She is curious about what makes an object art.” He takes her handbag and puts it on the museum floor, saying it can now be art. The same applies to penicillin, or fine whisky. Through the use of language, we could call coloured water whisky and sell it for huge bucks, but there’s laws against that. So what is art? Easy. Think of the art of cuisine or the art of conversation, a degree of excellence, heights we achieve with much experience and effort. So claiming trash as art is nothing more than the power of a curator working within a supporting network, creating a reputation for being shocking, by abusing the system. The end result is museums are now filled with trash.
Miklos, you are master of the art of writing, putting down words effectively in all your articles and comments, like a breath of fresh air. Writing is a soon to be lost art, as it implies that there are readers to read the writing. People today prefer to passively watch a short video than to read the full article on the same topic. Reading takes slightly more effort by our brains to process the information than when it’s automatically fed to us through visuals. We are losing our ability to imagine what written text represents.
Thank you Miklos for your comment. Yes, that’s one of the points of this very interesting movie, but in a way that was the more obvious thing. It’s the exploration of morality, trust and courage that is more particular to this director.
What makes an object art or what makes an object high fashion? A beautiful social marketing experiment was done with the Payless discount shoe brand, where inexpensive shoes were presented in a very exclusive venue and sold to gullible VIP shoppers and fashion experts at ridiculously high prices. The shoes, “exhibited” in an ex Armani store in Santa Monica California immediately became sophisticated and obviously exclusive, costing upwards to $600 a pair instead of their real cost of $20 under their brand name. This is art, transforming what is worthless into priceless and is done over and over again in the art and fashion world, but also in other sectors where presentation and venue are what give the object its so-called value.
No mention of cosmetics which can be even more exclusive than shoes, depending on the company displaying its art to women and also to men at all sorts of prices. Cosmetics are art in all senses, representing beauty, while also prolonging beauty in the middle aged and elderly sector. What can be more artistic than painting a woman’s face?
And also no mention of paintings; are they not art?