Winner of the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, “The Square” is a super-smart satire that skewers the contemporary art scene, calls out champagne socialists and shames all of our egos. Mixing cynicism with imagination, director Ruben Östlund artfully frames our political correct culture and socialist-leaning art world as a hypocritical cover for the deep discomfort we truly feel towards the otherized.
The film develops around a central question: How much do we really trust and care about people we don’t know? The answer lies in the actions of an egotistical art museum curator, Christian (Claes Bang), as he tries to untangle himself from a host of mishandlings involving the theft of his wallet and phone and the exhibition of an artwork, “The Square.”
“The Square” is a 4-meter square installation piece that, according to the artist’s statement, is a sanctuary of trust and caring within which everyone shares equal rights and obligations, or as one of the fancy-pants museum board members blandly puts it, a very nice project that communicates an important message. There are in fact real-life installations of “The Square” in several Scandinavian art museums by Östlund himself and co-artist Kalle Boman, which inspired the making of the film. Their idealistic artistic statement serves as a staggering contrast to the numerous daily, inhumane actions that unfold in the film.
As Christian tries to recover his possessions while publicizing “The Square,” he soon reveals his shallowness in all aspects of his life, especially in his attitudes towards the homeless on the footstep of the gallery. The curator’s swift role reversals bring out his contradictions and, once the audience learns the formula, have them anticipating the next movement. From the hero of the vulnerable, to the embodiment of the apathetic elite, to a beggar, Christian’s ever-changing personas always surpass expectations. Yet in critiquing his work, love, and family life, the film also ensures his well-roundedness and relatability. In some ways, the audience might relate best to the aspects of Christian’s character that are least likable: He is a mirror to the more ungenerous versions of ourselves.
Apart from Christian, another stand-out character is TV journalist Anne, thanks to the stunningly odd yet strong performance by Elisabeth Moss. Her bizarre probings into Christian’s consciousness leave the audience baffled but entertained, and buried in her senselessness is some sharp critique of elitism and masculinity today. The most unforgettable acting, however, comes from performance artist Terry Notary as Oleg the man-ape. The beast intrudes on the museum affiliates’ banquet and leads to a stunningly violent confrontation between the primitive and the cultured. Interestingly, Notary also gave the movements for the animals in the new “Planet of the Apes” series, which similarly reflects on the actions of the modern man through the actions of beasts.
Of course, part of the meta-irony of “The Square” is the fact that it is a criticism of contemporary art and yet a near-perfect work of art itself. And the joke is lost on no one that a film about the socialist-minded elites shunning the homeless goes on to win at the ritzy Cannes Film Festival. In fact, Ostlund’s work is the newest addition to a whole canon of films about the hypocrisy of elites, from “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” to “Orchestra Rehearsal,” that have been enthusiastically celebrated for decades by the elite class, so much so that their directors won themselves acceptance as social elites. Every satirical moment hits its mark.
Poignant and perturbing, “The Square” lingers not only for the absurd, humorous moments. After all, on our way to grab our Starbucks Pumpkin Spice coffee or CVS late-night purchase, we each have to cross the square.