Director and screenwriter Ruben Östlund has never been shy of exposing the frailty of masculinity. In his breakthrough movie, Force Majeure (2014), a father on a skiing holiday fails to protect his family during a controlled avalanche; more specifically, as the snow approaches the resort cafe, he runs away with a scream, leaving his family alone and helpless. Similarly, in a YouTube video recorded as the 2015 Academy Award nominations were being announced, Östlund and his producer Erik Hemmendorff anticipate Force Majeure to be among the nominations for Best Foreign Film, but when it fails to make the list, Östlund walks offscreen and begins to cry hysterically. That the video was most likely staged is irrelevant—its point is to satirise the ‘power’ that males are meant to uphold at all times, and with his latest film, The Square, Östlund sharpens his trademark satire to encompass both masculinity and the international art industry.
Claes Bang plays Christian, a handsome middle-aged art curator at one of Stockholm’s leading museums, and while preparing for a new installation (‘The Square’) which promotes trust and caring among the general public, he falls victim to pickpockets. His phone and wallet are stolen after he helps a young woman in distress, and soon he hatches a plan with fellow museum employee Michael (Christopher Læssø) to retrieve his belongings. They will drive to the apartment block in which the phone currently resides—Apple’s Find My iPhone app coming to the rescue—and place threats into the letterbox of every flat in the complex. Thus begins Christian’s downfall.
The most striking element of The Square is its combination of bourgeois satire, social commentary, surrealist humour, and moments of sheer exhilaration. Since the film for the most part is shot in the tableaux characteristic of Östlund’s work, there is the danger that the film may become static and dull—yet it never does. Among the film’s best moments, there is the scene in which the Gigoni exhibition—piles of dust before a neon sign reading ‘You are nothing’—is partially hoovered up by a cleaner; a skit based around a homeless Swedish toddler been blown up, all for the marketing of the titular exhibition; an awkward post-coital conversation in which Christian refuses to hand over a used condom for fear that Anna (Elisabeth Moss) will use his sperm to become pregnant; or the ecstatic car ride to the apartment block as Christian and Michael listen to the kinetic pounding of Justice’s ‘Genesis.’
Ultimately Östlund treats the premise of the film as a string upon which to hang a myriad of well-designed scenes, rather than a series of progressive complications in which the plot unfolds. In other words, he is more interested in crafting memorable moments than he is in creating a tragic arc for the character of Christian or using scenes for expository reasons. Nevertheless, the film naturally builds towards its centrepiece, in which stunt coordinator and movement coach Terry Notary plays a man imitating a monkey for the pleasure of refined museum-goers. Wearing tuxedos and gowns, they sit in an opulent ballroom as Notary paces the room in an ape-like fashion. At first the atmosphere is pleasant—everyone finds the piece of performance art amusing—but when Notary’s performance becomes too real for the comfort of his audience, things turn sour and an all-out brawl ensues.
In scenes like these we see the film’s primary interest—the savagery of civilization—and given the preoccupation with social issues such as homelessness and class divisions in the film, its obvious thesis is that the upper classes only show solidarity to those in need when it is too late. What separates a socially conscious film like this apart from similar films by, say, Michael Haneke—whose recent black satire Happy End (2017) failed to find humour in the current refugee crisis at Calais—is that its politics are in service to its humour. However, it must be said that the seriousness of the final act feels a tad overwrought. Perhaps what Östlund is suggesting is that civilization, for all the solemnity attached to it, is something not to be wholly understood but rather to be laughed about. And, thankfully, The Square offers plenty to laugh about.
‘The Square’ will play in the QFT until March 22.
Director: Ruben Östlund.
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West.