“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” This is the caption for the newest artwork displayed at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm: a bright white square illuminated from the ground. And so is the basis for Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or-winner The Square, which refuses such quadrilateral boundaries.
The film follows Christian (Claes Bang), the curator, who needs to generate income for the museum – largely in the promotions for the new artwork. He is a satirical display of upper-middle-class opulence and intellectualism, thwarted when he is cleverly mugged of his phone and wallet. He is determined to get the thieves back, and figures out a plan. But this doesn’t wholly turn out the way he hopes.
The plot sounds escalatory, but swims within a larger tapestry of absurdity and surrealism – acting as a scathing satire of modern art and bourgeois attitudes. Christian sees an ape randomly enter an apartment without explanation. He fights with a journalist (breathlessly played by Elizabeth Moss) over a post-coital condom, in fear she will use it to impregnate herself. And, as part of an art display, a man (Terry Notary, known for his work on the recent Apes movies) performs as a curious gorilla at a grandiose dinner party. Meanwhile, the viral marketing for The Square grow into stupid and even violent proportions.
Östlund plunges the audience into a labyrinth of strange pleasures, with a lingering shock around every corner. It’d be patronising to describe The Square as dream-like, since its setting is very real, but there’s an intense subjectivity to Christian’s character. Through the film, he is gradually consumed by his middle-class guilt, and Fredrik Wenzel’s dark and warped visuals flow with his angst. But although the weird experience is alluring, it’s still a story about a rich white guy who feels bad. In fact, in many ways, Östlund’s movie is the polar opposite to the previous Cannes winner I, Daniel Blake.
The Square is a bizarre, dark and funny poke at the modern world – but, even at two-and-a-half hours long, there’s a peculiar desire for more. The surrealism isn’t explored enough, with the film pursuing the importance of the real world instead. Even though the real world is integral, the rabbit hole would’ve been more immersive had Östlund permitted a deeper look.
The Square is released nationwide on 16th March 2018.
Watch the trailer for The Square here: