Swedish director Ruben Ostlünd’s new film The Square sets out to not only satirise and critique the world of fine art and culture, but also to show the inhumane way we treat others, despite our attempts at altruism. The film follows Christian (Claes Bang), a contemporary art museum manager as he tries to build momentum around a newly purchased installation called ‘The Square’: a designated ‘safe space’ where anyone and everyone can ask for help from those around them.
Christian’s PR team suggests creating drama and controversy around the new installation which would get the museum global media coverage. The Square delivers its message through Ostlünd’s signature blend of comedy and spectacle, causing the film to sometimes deviate from its path to indulge the whimsy central to the characters’ lives.
The film’s beauty is in its destruction of the self-importance within the art world, particularly contemporary art.
Bang delivers an incredible performance, his highly-strung and intensely self-important character constantly undermining the altruistic message at the heart of the story. Formidably detached and oblivious to his own stake in the selfish world he inhabits, Christian is the perfect unreliable narrator; his self-aggrandising often obscures the viewer’s view of the film’s events. Bang is supported by a talented, but underused cast including Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West whose native English tongue brings little meaning to the film other than driving its international appeal.
The film’s beauty is in its destruction of the self-importance within the art world, particularly in contemporary art. Most of the art that appears in the film is ridiculed or ignored and most of the scenes at Christian’s workplace are empty, save for a few visitors.
But it isn’t just the art itself that is satirised, but also the language and culture that surrounds contemporary art.
The pieces of art that are shown within The Square reference contemporary artists. A series of neon letters recalls the American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth and a performance art piece that goes wrong is possibly a reference to work by Marina Abramovich.
But it isn’t just the art itself that is satirised, but also the language and culture that surrounds contemporary art. American journalist Anne (Moss) asks Christian to explain a very convoluted piece of writing on the museum’s website. Christian grasps at straws in his attempt to explain its meaning, allowing Ostlünd to exploit the self-regard of (some) artists and art critics.
The critique of the art world in The Square is also a criticism of consumerism as Christian and his team stress the importance and value of money above art. When an installation featuring various piles of rubble and pebbles breaks, Christian doesn’t hesitate to instruct his employees to find some rubble and ‘fix’ the piece of art.
Christian is not alone in his selfishness; every character in the film lacks moral integrity. The Square is peppered with images of homelessness and helplessness, but Ostlünd’s characters either don’t notice these calls for help, or ignore them. This lack of awareness is only heightened as Christian and the museum staff prepare for the unveiling of ‘The Square’, an artwork that stands for everything they ignore in real life.
Although beautifully shot, insightful and entertaining, Ostlünd’s The Square sometimes deviates into a heightened directorial aestheticism making it less satisfying than his previous film Force Majeure. Ironically enough, the director seems to fall into the same category as his protagonist, favouring aesthetic and artistic importance over sustenance.