THE SQUARE (2017)
Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Christopher Læssø, Terry Notary, Dominic West
MPAA Rating: (for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence)
Running Time: 2:22
Release Date: 10/27/17 (limited); 11/10/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 9, 2017
Even though people keep repeating the artist's mission statement about her newest work, nobody seems to understand the concept of "The Square," a temporary piece of art at a major museum in Stockholm. The idea is simple: It's a square, with a perimeter of four meters on all sides, set apart from the pavement leading up to the museum with a boundary of light. A plaque next to it reads, "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring," and that, "Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations."
According to the museum's curator, this basically translates to the notion that anyone standing within The Square is afforded special consideration. If someone standing within its borders asks for help, anyone passing is obliged to provide that help. If someone asks for money within The Square, people are obligated to provide. If someone wants to talk, a passer-by is encouraged to participate.
This piece is only necessary in a society where the equal rights and obligations of citizens are either taken for granted or ignored. People should help each other when they can, and people asking for help should be looked at with a certain level of trust and should receive at least some care. The Square is only special if these parameters are not met outside of its boundaries.
The central joke of writer/director Ruben Östlund's The Square is that The Square is required but that no one really comprehends why that is, how to sell people on the philosophy behind it, and in what ways they fail the test put forth by the artwork. At first, The Square is located just in front of the museum, but later in the movie, it's indoors, contained within a larger exhibit. Whoever moved it just tore it from the stone walkway leading to the museum, and it sits on the floor, only visible to and useable by anyone who has paid their entry fee for the museum.
It is, well, useless by that point, because it's no longer a public space, available for anyone who needs it. Surely the beggars who live in the city aren't going to purchase a ticket, stand in The Square, and receive the caring promised to them by the piece.
It's as if the museum has given up on The Square, not as an art installation, but as a vehicle for possible social change, before it could be of any use. This is, perhaps, to be expected. After all, the movie's characters don't see the world in the way of the unseen artist who created The Square.
Christian (Claes Bang), the chief curator, is The Square's most notable advocate—or at least he is to the public. In private, his life is a mess, and his choices are less than admirable. Near the start of the movie, Christian finds himself pulled in by a stranger in order to help a woman, fleeing from a man who, she says, intends to harm her. After the tense confrontation, Christian discovers that his wallet, cellphone, and cufflinks are missing—stolen, he suspects, by one of the participants in the standoff. He tracks his cellphone to an apartment building, and his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) comes up with a plan: Print a bunch of threatening letters, put them in the mailboxes of every apartment, and wait for the thief to return Christian's belongings.
All of this, of course, spirals out of control, because, in the process of indirectly confronting the thief, he has also accused every inhabitant of the apartment building of stealing from him. This is the central through line of Östlund's screenplay—how Christian's actions, done with little thinking except for his own benefit, have unintended consequences that put him in a series of compromised situations. Besides the false accusations coming back to bite him, Christian's single-mindedness on his cellphone also distracts him from the launch of the museum's new marketing campaign for The Square. This also turns out poorly, with a viral video that goes completely against the intentions of the artwork and causes a national scandal.
This material works. It's amusing, challenging, and examines how Christian's stated values are only a cover for his selfishness and prejudices, as well as a sign of his hypocrisy. Östlund, though, cannot leave well enough alone, and his screenplay adds more and more levels to the character's flaws. He sleeps with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist who's covering the museum's new exhibit, and finds that she expects more from the encounter than him (also, as a throwaway joke, that she lives with a chimpanzee). The sex scene—a lot of effort for minimal payoff—is funny, as is the strange debate over a condom that follows, but the relationship between the curator and the reporter doesn't go anywhere, except to inform us of what we already know about Christian. The same can be said of the revelation that Christian is a near-absentee father.
There are more distractions, including a question-and-answer session that pushes the audience's tolerance for a man with a neurological disorder, as well as lengthy scene involving a performance artist (played by Terry Notary) who takes his act way too far. Clearly, Östlund is reaching for more than a straightforward character/morality study with The Square, but in the process of looking for more, the movie loses its way.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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