Ruben Östlund may well be the finest filmmaker working in the Nordic Countries today, so for him, taking aim at the modern arts scene as the setting for his latest work may seem like a soft target for such a sharp eye. That said, in his last film ‘Force Majure,’ about a family skiing holiday, he managed to say more about modern society than most.
Note: spoilers below
In an analysis of ‘The Square,’ let’s begin with the basics. The film asks, What is art? The main character, a museum curator named Christian, is being interviewed by an American journalist played by Elizabeth Moss (‘Mad Men’’s Peggy Olson and Handmaid’s tail). Neither journalist nor curator seem to understand the question posed, so Christian retorts by wondering if any object, for example her handbag, placed in a museum would automatically become art. This question is later turned on its head: if an artwork consisting of a mound of dirt is accidentally swept up by the cleaning guy and then replaced by the curator, is it still art?
But there is more to modern life than wondering what art is. Presaging a debate that had yet to happen when the movie was shot, we see a statue of a white guy on a horse being removed and accidentally destroyed. The Royal Palace in Stockholm is being turned into a trendy art museum.
We move on to what has by now become familiar Östlund ground: the desire of, or perhaps the pressure on, today’s emasculated male to still perform heroically for women in need. A damsel in distress comes running, chased by a bad guy. Our curator is recruited by a passer-by to intervene. They stop the assailant and feel a rare surge of testosterone, but it soon turns out it was all a scam by pickpockets. Attempting to retrieve his belongings, our hero enters a world he neither knows nor understands—that of average working people.
But this is all merely a backdrop to a host of sometimes amusing, often uncomfortable scenes. A meeting with an artist, played by Dominic West (‘The Wire’’s McNulty), is interrupted by a Tourette’s afflicted guest, prompting challenging questions about the rights of individual vs. group. And then there is the scene with the monkey man near-raping a society lady—perhaps a little too much for an otherwise subtle story, or perhaps it gets right to the heart of the matter; we are all just apes trying to survive in a civilization no one truly understands, with the animal in us always peering out from just below the surface.
No sex please
And yet, as Winston Smith would say, it would all be tolerable if it wasn’t for sex. A mechanical hook-up at a party results in, well, a mildly uncomfortable day after, minutely described in all its hypocritical dreariness. Who knew that sex in the 21st Century would be such a drag?
It all comes to a head when an advertising agency makes an ad for the curator’s exhibition, featuring homeless people, capitalising on the one minority left without a voice. The ad is both tasteless and meaningless and of course goes viral, prompting widespread condemnation. In an earlier age, this would be seen as a PR coup, but no more. Christian is taken to task by religious groups and others posing as heroes, defenders of the oppressed, while others condemn his retraction of the ad as a failure to uphold free speech. As always, Östlund offers no easy answers.
There was a time when art was supposed to be thought-provoking and, if need be, shocking. The art museum in ‘The Square’ might not live up to this task, but Östlund’s film certainly does.
Cannes Palm d’or Winner ‘The Square’ is showing now at Bíó Paradís.