[…] Anyone can want to be a humanist, but it is far from easy to effectively be humanist: this appears to be one of the main tenets of the story in «The Square».
[…] Ostlund willingly leaves us in the doubt for many long minutes, creating for the nth time an exciting suspense that really becomes the spectator’s experience of the limit between the game and the crime, the play and the truth, the conviction and its collapse, the fiction and the reality…
[…] The social issues that «The Square» pays so much attention to seem to be sunken into a world of anarchy, in which the individual is completely alone in coping with their own problems and complications.
The Square starts initially an art project, eventually becoming an artwork: in the publicly drawn square of 4 meters, anyone can signal for his/her need for help; within this space, solidarity and altruism should reign. This is the rule and concept of the work; this is the challenge and the provocation of Ruben Ostlund, the initiator of this art project. Actually, for me it was quite astonishing to discover that he is still a fervent advocate of the project, as the film, The Square, uses this conceptual artwork in order to make a pitiless satire about the art world, where the candid intentions of artists and the gentle-minded nature of artworks are ridiculed, inevitably involving the artwork The Square itself in the satire. But Ostlund’s celebrated film broadens its satirical target beyond the scope of the art world to the entire Swedish society (and the wealthy Western society as well), particularly focusing on the absurd paranoia towards the poor and towards foreigners, which cannot help but sharpen the class distinction in our societies. Anyone can want to be a humanist, but it is far from easy to effectively be humanist: this appears to be one of the main tenets of the story in The Square. Ostlund can exemplify his point through an impressive quantity of original ideas and funny scenes, but it is also thanks to a pool of very good actors, an extraordinary mastery of tempo and an entertaining dramaturgy.
If the film’s virtues would be limited to just these qualities, this would definitely not be enough to consider it a great movie, one that would merit being the winner of an important film festival like Cannes Festival. We would just have a film of pleasure and entertainment, a very well-made film with a penchant for clownery and an intelligent management of surprises and coup-de-scènes. It would be correct to classify this film in a genre that is quite fashionable, now, in the arthouse cinema world; dark humour, light cynicism, family catastrophes, criticism of the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie: those seem to be the ingredients for a Nordic recipe that gains much approval today.
But, there are at least two aspects that make this film truly exceptional. Both are to be found in the experience that we can have as spectators. The first is what I would call the “experience of limits”. When the main character, Christian (artistic director of the main contemporary art museum in Stockholm), goes with his young employee to seek revenge against the presumed criminal who could have stolen his wallet, the limit between the game and the risk of serious consequences is very thin: we experience the action as a play and a possible criminal act at the same time. Another scene of perfectly displayed suspense is the climax of violence during a performance accompanying the gala dinner for the opening of a new exhibition in the museum (which actually occupies the space of the royal palace in Stockholm). The limits of artistic performance allow a lot of licence, which is abundantly used by the performer who plays the brutality of a wild animal, so that we are forced many times to hesitate and to have the impression that his wildness is no longer a performance, but it has become real and then uncontrollable. During the press conference, after the scandal of the perturbing trailer that had been diffused on the museum’s YouTube channel, the artistic director faces a bunch of journalists that make us slowly doubt the soundness of the director’s argument: he himself is finally not able to distinguish between his ability to defend himself or to make his position even worse. A final scene of perfect ambiguity is during Anne’s predictable accusation against Christian’s behaviour: is she romantically lamenting her right to more affectionate attention from the person whom she assumes to be her lover, or is she trying to blackmail him with her pregnancy? Ostlund willingly leaves us in the doubt for many long minutes, creating for the nth time an exciting suspense that really becomes the spectator’s experience of the limit between the game and the crime, the play and the truth, the conviction and its collapse, the fiction and the reality…
If this “experience of limits” adds a psychological depth to the satirical line of the filmic narration, the spectator can find another interesting aspect in The Square on a more reflexive level, a sort of underground theme that implicitly runs through the entire story. Almost all of the scenes display the imagined risk of going beyond the limits of the lawful: the crime haunts Christian’s daily adventures like a paranoid spectre. In any case, neither the police nor any representative of the law make an appearance, even in the form of a question, hypothesis, or possibility. In this way, Ruben Ostlund slowly builds a world without apparent forms of social order; without an ordered society. The social issues that The Square pays so much attention to seem to be sunken into a world of anarchy, in which the individual is completely alone in coping with their own problems and complications. The coherence of this radically individualistic stance in the movie suggests that the absence of the state of law would be an intentional topic in Ostlund’s movie. But, even if this implicit motive had not been intended, it would be an interesting symptom of the context of social relationships that the filmmaker depicts in a such realistic way. More than the satire of the art world, or the consequences of the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, the deeper interest of The Square is in its implicit revelation of how the fundamental bond of society is broken and the salvation can be realized only on an individual basis.
Text: Giuseppe Di Salvatore
First published: October 17, 2017
The Square | Film | Ruben Ostlund | SU-FR-DE-DK 2017 | 145’ | Zurich Film Festival 2017
Palme d’or at Festival de Cannes 2017