Film, Reviews, Screen

The Square movie review: a savagely funny parable

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Much has been made of Ruben Ostlund’s The Square as a satire of the contemporary art world, complete with extraordinary set pieces about avant-garde conceptual art. But Claes Bang’s charismatic performance as Christian, a suavely dressed, cool-cat curator in a showy, modern Stockholm museum, is so nuanced and compelling that what might have been a slick pastiche is instead a deeply human parable, as thought-provoking as it is funny.

For starters, all the action of the film is ignited by the most relatable of disasters – the loss of a mobile phone and driven by the most relatable of objectives – to get it back. When Christian’s phone is stolen on the street in a brilliantly executed con job, his bemused response eloquently speaks of his privilege. After recounting the incident at work as an entertaining anecdote, his colleague tracks the phone on his computer and they devise a restitution of justice. They devise a potentially dangerous plan that involves driving Christian’s Tesla out to the boondocks.

The brilliance of The Square is in torturously dwelling in the moment when well-curated, bourgeois lives succumb to chaos.

But the brilliance of The Square, which last year won the Palme D’Or at Cannes, as with the film-maker’s dazzling earlier film Force Majeure, is in torturously dwelling in the moment when well-curated, bourgeois lives succumb to chaos.

Christian’s bright, white gallery is preparing for an exhibition riffing off a new conceptual art piece entitled “The Square”, in which a neon lit square of cobblestoned sidewalk in front of the façade of the museum, symbolises a contemplative space where respect, kindness and responsibility rule.

Within the building, sober gallerists obsess over the pursuit of money and celebrity, albeit wrapped in gossamer layers of urbane philosophising. One grey, pony-tailed bigwig brings his baby to meetings, its little complaints the only reminder of nature in a world of perfect artifice.

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All hell breaks loose when a publicity stunt for “The Square” goes viral. Suddenly, Christian is in a maelstrom of uncontrollable events. His daughters arrive unexpectedly from his ex-wife’s and he can’t stop them fighting and banging doors as they go at each other full tilt. Pots boil over on the stove, his sexual encounter with a belligerent American journalist (brilliantly played by Elizabeth Moss) spirals into a grotesque comedy involving condoms, critiques and sexual protocol and Christian’s solid place in the art-world suddenly looks shaky.

The debonair curator of the early scenes – where his biggest challenge is trying to explain ludicrous art jargon he has lobbed at the public – is transformed into a man forced to ask lucid questions about his own moral responsibility. The bombast and art-speak has been supplanted by a reverberating doubt about  the life he has hitherto led. The street beggars punctuating his daily routine as he walks around the city begin to play other roles in his personal universe and he is forced to reassess them as part of the whole picture of humanity to which he belongs.

Ruben Ostlund doesn’t need to satirise the high-end, contemporary art world because as he well knows, it satirises itself with straight-faced perfection.

As a privileged, educated European, Christian sails through life believing in his moral acuity and social decorum but within the short time frame of this story, the hyper-civility of his world, the world of the cultivated rich, is in tatters. Art installations creak and whine and clatter, agonised inside their own self-consciousness, like the well-heeled crowds who survey them. And in a harrowing scene that will live on as a legendary piece of cinematic provocation, the ape-mimicking star of a conceptual art performance confuses a swanky dinner appearance with literally going ape as the donors and sponsors sit, heads bowed, in terror.

Not all of the filmmaker’s intentions are always clear – at least not to me – but the message seems to be that while our best efforts may go into orchestrating our lives and wrapping them in good intentions, the real world, compelled by inequity, will eventually make itself felt. It’s not exactly a new thought, but it’s perhaps never been more entertainingly explored than in The Square.

Ostlund’s brilliance is in taking the measure of a world he knows exceptionally well with as much affection as savagery. He doesn’t need to satirise the high-end, contemporary art world because as he well knows, it satirises itself with straight-faced perfection. And while Claes may reveal himself in moments of shame, those moments of blinkered hypocrisy are well within our own repertoire. The startling, utterly unpredictable set pieces of the film’s unfolding story compose an exhibition of cinematic installation art. Watching The Square is like walking through a gallery, each beguiling scene, a question mark in our own narrative of privilege, selfishness and conscience.

The Square opens in cinemas nationally on March 1

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6 responses to “The Square movie review: a savagely funny parable

  1. I have seen The Square , and yes it’s a wonderful film, but I was appalled by the many SPOILERS in this review which, by the way , is little more than a summary of events. C C Ford surely must be aware that his experience of the movie would have been very different if he knew in advance of the many surprises , delights and shocks this movie has to offer. How do we alert readers NOT to read this review, and instead just go and see it?

  2. A very good film. I thought it might be a parable about social media – especially the scene where the actor pretending to be a chimp bends an entire room into anxious submission with his intimidating behaviour before they finally turn on him and beat him to death.

  3. Brilliant film, despite its asking more questions than answers. It’s clearly also station point in the evolution of the history of the arts, as one chapter creaks into fold and a new chapter emerges, ie the democratising of this enclave. Thank you Ruben Ostlund.

  4. Yes, yes. But did it really have to be 2 hours and 20 minutes? There were scenes that seemed to have no purpose other than to make the film longer.

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