I don’t know what the best film might have been at the Cannes Film Festival last year, but it does not surprise me that The Square emerged as the Palme d’Or winner. This is an audacious, thought provoking, unique and hugely entertaining piece of cinema as social commentary; a sprawling satire that delves into myriad issues surrounding freedom of expression and contemporary art. There is much, much more going on as well in what is a bizarre, bodacious new work from Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund. The film follows Christian (Claes Bang), a contemporary art museum manager whose efforts to build momentum around an upcoming installation are undermined by a series of events that send his life spiralling out of control.
Intense, handsome and highly-strung but brimming with confidence, Christian possesses charm and charisma in spades, valuable attributes in a world in which hobnobbing with benefactors is becoming more critical than ever as the gallery struggles to remain relevant. While walking down the street, Christian protects a woman from what he believes is an attack, only to find himself the victim of a pick-pocketing racket that has relieved him of his wallet and phone. Whilst part of him sees the incident as a spontaneous performance that provides plenty of fodder for office conversation, it is at the urging of his assistant that Christian sets forth on a mission to retrieve the stolen items. As he becomes caught up in his vigilante mission, Christian starts to lose sight of his responsibilities to the gallery and his managerial neglect results in a disastrous marketing campaign for their latest installation, an exhibit titled The Square, an artwork which serves as a designated ‘safe space’ that is free of judgement and in which “everyone has equal rights and responsibilities.”
Östlund is unrelenting in his critique of the contemporary art world and the delusional self-regard that possesses both the producers and purveyors of the pretentious art works that fill the gallery spaces. When one installation – which comprises nothing but piles of gravel on the gallery floor – is inadvertently disturbed by cleaners, Christian doesn’t hesitate to simply ‘fix’ the piece, the integrity of the artwork not given a moment’s consideration. When journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss) asks Christian to explain a somewhat pretentious piece of writing that appears on the gallery website, he struggles to articulate its meaning. There are several hilarious moments to be had, while others are somewhat disturbing and, even though his behaviour is pretty appalling at times – although, to be fair, none of the characters exhibit much moral integrity – Christian somehow remains remarkably likeable through it all, which is a great credit to the incredible performance from Bang in balancing the contradictions of the character to perfection. The inclusion of Moss and Dominic West in the cast seems, on the surface at least, a bid to broaden the international appeal of the film but neither performer possesses the drawing power that is likely to plonk too many additional bums on seats, which is a shame because this really deserves to secure a wide audience. As we have come to expect from her, Moss is terrific as the clingy Anne, while West features in one of the funniest scenes in the film.
There is so much going on in The Square that it would be folly to try and cover everything here. Besides, there are some things that are just so wonderfully odd, unexpected and quite thought-provoking that you really need to experience them with as little prior knowledge as possible. In addition to taking great delight in attacking the artifice and self-importance within the art world specifically, the film also explores the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in European society; the Tesla-driving Christian and his art cronies juxtaposed against the plight of the homeless people that seem to populate the streets of Stockholm in large numbers. Following up his critically well-received Force Majeure, Östlund has produced something quite unique that is big on ideas and executed with considerable flair. Difficult to pigeonhole, The Square is many things all at once and all of them are damn good.