The Square review – an archly-entertaining swipe at the art world

The Square review – an archly-entertaining swipe at the art world


The publicity for Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner The Square features Terry Notary as performance artist Oleg, stripped to the waist, mounting a table at an upmarket dinner and glowering with animalistic rage. It’s an arresting tableau – baffling and intriguing, promising anarchic action and titilatory spectacle. The fact that this in-your-face image only partly represents the film itself seems entirely appropriate, since one of the key themes of Östlund’s surreally cerebral and increasingly weird art-world satire is “the difference between art and marketing”.

“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” reads the rubric for the art installation of the title: a floor-level, illuminated outline of a space in which altruistic behaviour is compulsory. “Within its bounds we all share equal rights and obligations.” Such aspirations are noble but hardly headline-grabbing – until two youthful PR creatives conjure up a shockingly offensive promo video (think Wag the Dog meets Michael Bay) that promptly goes viral. Meanwhile, suave museum director Christian (Claes Bang) is too distracted by the whereabouts of his stolen wallet and mobile phone (ringtones constantly interrupt the drama) to pay proper attention to his job, or the people with whom he works.

Like the husband and father in Östlund’s 2014 gem Force Majeure, whose inherent cowardice is revealed in a moment of crisis, Christian’s image starts to crack. He presents himself as a liberal paragon who commissions “cutting-edge” art and speaks passionately (“from the heart”) about the social importance of The Square. Yet Christian’s personal politics are altogether less progressive, rife with barely concealed petty prejudices – social, racial, sexual.

“As your boss, I’m curious to know if I can count on you,” he tells one employee whom he attempts to bully into doing his extracurricular dirty work. Another, whose name Christian can’t remember, is unceremoniously yanked out of a planning meeting (“Do you have a driver’s licence?”) to serve as his unpaid taxi service. When Elisabeth Moss’s spurned journalist Anne accuses him of “using your position of power to attract women, to make conquests”, Christian is grudgingly forced to concede that she has a point. Not even his own children (from an unsurprisingly failed marriage) can rely on their father to put their interests first.

Such selfishness is in stark contrast to the avowed ethos of The Square, which takes inspiration from a real-life art project developed by Östlund and Kalle Boman in 2014/5. A masterfully poised turn by Bang perfectly encapsulates the contradictions of his character, slipping subtly between charm and creepiness without any hint of caricature. In one revealing sequence, Christian tracks his stolen phone to a downmarket high-rise, an environment that seems terrifyingly alien to this hilariously pampered “semi-public” figure. Reflecting Christian’s increasingly paranoid state of mind, cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel’s camera creeps down ominously darkened corridors speckled by eerie pools of automatic lighting, visualising Christian’s culture-shocked anxieties.

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square.

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square.

By contrast, the ridiculing of the insular world of modern art is rather more broad, ranging from toe-curling routines about the impenetrable gobbledegook of museum catalogues to gags about mounds of carefully arranged rubble being accidentally swept up by the cleaners. In one pantomime-style sequence, Dominic West’s pyjama-wearing celebrity artist attempts to pontificate upon the origins of his work while being interrupted by the obscene interjections of an audience member with Tourette’s. In another, a group of patrons applaud Christian’s pious speech about caring for the poor and needy before rushing with unceremonious haste toward a lavish hospitality buffet.

Throughout, one word is repeated, and repeatedly ignored: “Help!” From the homeless beggars whom the museum’s PR firm seem happy to exploit, to the elegantly attired patrons terrorised by Oleg’s performance-art primate in the film’s audaciously alarming set piece, such unanswered pleas become the plaintive refrain of The Square. Some audience members may find themselves similarly crying out for assistance as this Oscar-nominated oddity swings between the carnivalesque and the cruel. Should we read the movie as a polemical cry against bystander apathy, a scalpel-sharp dissection of male hypocrisy, or just a playful swipe at the emptiness of modern art, replete with bizarre riffs on that old chestnut, “A monkey could have done that”?

The answer is in the eye of the beholder. Like Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma’s oddly off-kilter rendition of Ave Maria, which echoes throughout the drama, The Square is a strange mix of pop and profundity: archly entertaining, occasionally grating and consistently uncomfortable.

Watch a trailer for The Square.

Source link