Mild mannered museum curator Cristian (Claes Bang) is overseeing the installation of a new exhibit entitled “The Square”. The Square is a rectangle of light that encourages viewers to enter and find a place of greater equality and understanding between people. It is compared to a zebra crossing which successfully warns drivers to simply be aware of pedestrians. The Square (both the art piece and the film) is intended to explore the dynamics between people (often strangers) when they ask each other for help.
Director Ruben Östlund broke out internationally a few years ago with his wonderfully observant comedy Force Majeure. He continues to show interest in how people react when their routine is broken by something extraordinary. Östlund attended my screening and explained to the audience that he was inspired to make the film by his own experiences trying to design and sell a modern art installation. His familiarity with the industry and the medium shows, as the film is as much an affectionate satire of the modern art world as it is a genuinely interesting exploration of how the medium could be used to effectively interrogate modern life. Scenes play out like comedic performance art, with a baby brought into a busy board room and a man with Tourette’s syndrome disrupting the quiet solemnity of an art talk.
The objective of the film is to interrogate the bystander effect. How severe must a person’s suffering really become before those around them take action. Östlund reveals that he was inspired by the troubling trend of children robbing other children in Gothenburg, sometimes in plain view of adults. He offers many variations of scenarios in which basic human decency is put to the test. Some scenes feel like Östlund’s own attempt at the Milgrim experiment by way of Trigger Happy TV.
Claes Bang is absolutely perfect as Cristian. He is handsome and well-spoken and seems very earnest in his dealings with other people. He is painfully aware of his own hypocrisy and wants to explore it, as well as encouraging others to do the same. Östlund made an interesting point in the Q&A. He complained that any attempt to present complex characters who have serious faults tends to be viewed as cynical or dark films. Bang and Östlund have created something much more hopeful in Cristian.
Another of Östlund’s criticisms of the modern art world is the focus on what is economically viable instead of what is artistically important. Perhaps he is satirising this when listing the names of the three non-Swedish actors appearing in the film before its hero in the credits. Elizabeth Moss plays an American reporter. She has fabulous comedic instincts and timing. Dominic West is perfect as a pretentious artist who at one point is literally chased out of a room by a particularly challenging installation played by the third actor Terry Notary.
At the centre of the film is an extraordinary sequence in which mo-cap actor Terry Notary plays a performance artist who imitates a terrifying ape during a high class dinner. Notary is astoundingly convincing and utterly terrifying as the beast that terrorises the art patrons. The scene is fabulously tense, is certain to become iconic, and is featured prominently in the marketing for the film. It’s a microcosm of the film’s purpose to explore how challenging art can force people to readdress their own complacency.
The Square forced me to reflect on how I interact with other people and society around me, affecting me in a way that few films have done. Director Ruben Östlund is clearly a talent to watch. He has once again made one of the most provocative, intelligent and funny films of the year. The Square will not only please the crowds but will hopefully force them to question themselves and their actions, as truly great modern art can do.
5 / 5