The Square (2017)
Written & Directed by Ruben Östlund
Modern art is the topic of many heated discussions. Once upon a time art was just landscapes and Greek sculpture but if you step into a museum of contemporary art now, you’ll find video installations and seemingly random assortments of clutter. The reason why modern art draws the ire of so many is that it doesn’t offer easy answers or even poses questions in ways that are accessible in a single glance. Modern art makes demands of the viewer to look beyond the surface and, sadly, so many people don’t like doing that. To look beyond is to be uncomfortable and enter a realm where you can never be sure of previous assumptions. However, there is a bizarre marketplace at work that injects billions of dollars into modern art and creates inflated value for these objects. In turn, a sense of elitism centered around wealth and prestige has taken old and twisted art into something to be hoarded rather than shared with all.
Christian is the curator of the X-Royal, an art museum in Stockholm, Sweden. He goes through a series of episodic moments that have him confronting his privilege as a man, as a wealthy person, and as a gatekeeper of art in his culture. Early on, Christian is pickpocketed and uses software to track his phone to a rundown building in a low-income section of town. His employee Michael comes up with the idea of printing up fifty threatening letters that demand the culprit returns the belongings to a nearby 7-11. Christian goes through with it and gets his wallet back. However, another package gets delivered to the store for him that creates an even more significant problem.
Meanwhile, he’s promoting a new work called The Square, an illuminated 16 square foot space in the courtyard of the museum that is billed as “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” What this means is never really explained, and the marketing team for the museum comes up with a highly offensive idea for an ad to promote the new exhibit. Because Christian is caught up in personal life problems, he signs off without paying much attention. This, of course, leads to professional issues that are going to cause enormous problems for our protagonist.
The Square is a very uneven movie with lots of scenes that seemingly have no point, but it is consistently funny. Everything is centered around Christian being revealed a pretty selfish and arrogant person. He has a one night stand with Anna, an art journalist. Sidenote: Anna lives with a chimpanzee who makes art. After sex, Christian refuses to let Anna throw the condom away because he believes she’ll try to impregnate herself. Christian becomes harshly cruel to a child after creating trouble in the youth’s life. The way that subplot culminates is when the film takes a chilling turn in the third act.
There are some striking images throughout the film, particularly in a third act moment where performance art becomes a physical attack on the guests at a museum dinner party. The presence of homeless beggars is made clear from the movie’s opening, and they become invisible people to the busy, wealthy class Christian travels with. There’s a strong sense of Luis Buñuel but not quite as sophisticated and intelligent as a film like The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. You’re bound to laugh at quite a few moments in The Square, but I can easily see how a large swath of the audience would not enjoy this picture. The picture is just a little too obscure to add up to a more profound theme.