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The Square

WINNER! Palme D'Or, Cannes Film Festival 2017

King of the cringe-inducing confrontation, nabob of the nervous laugh, Swedish director Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) truly anoints himself with The Square, a razor-burn of a movie that deploys drollery like an instrument of torture. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’or at Cannes, The Square is made up of dozens of scenes of such perfect, short-story polish and bite that it almost feels like a series of vignettes. And yet, the scathing sensibility remains a constant, dark delight throughout.

The Square is set in the rarefied reaches of Sweden’s art world, but from that vantage point takes pot shots at marketing, the media, political correctness as well as the pretension, self-deception, and pseudospeak of the cultural elite. It is saved from being too scattershot by two main factors. Firstly, it’s all gathered around one central character, Christian, the head curator of a museum of avant-garde art, played in an exceptionally assured performance by Claes Bang. As with Force Majeure’s cowardly dad, it is Christian’s moral hypocrisy, egotism and ethical sluggishness that will come under the closest scrutiny.

The trials visited on him are endless – he is Job in a Tesla – yet we cannot escape the feeling that his air of complacent privilege means he somehow deserves them. Secondly, while the film’s targets are many, there is a kind of organizing principle relating to the chasm between the social faces we wear and the self-interested creatures we are. In scenarios dripping with acidly observed discomfort, Östlund snips through the barbed-wire barriers of culture, sophistication and socialization that refined middle-class human beings erect between our public selves and our private, animal natures.

He’s especially interested in exploring that chasm in the males of the species: indeed, you could almost accuse Östlund of misandry, so little does he evidently think of the moral courage of any of his male characters, Christian in particular. The Square explores its central dichotomy from a multitude of different angles. Christian responds to a damsel’s pleas for help on the street with red-blooded masculinity (albeit in tandem with someone else: herd instinct is another facet of human behavior to come under Östlund’s microscope), and it exhilarates and emboldens him.

Dominic West plays a visiting artist whose Q&A is constantly interrupted by the profane outbursts of a Tourettic man. Two brash marketing guys, obsessed with going viral, create a YouTube ad for the museum that makes Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad look like a model of corporate sensitivity. The aesthete Christian engages in sex, the most animal act of all, with journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, great, obviously) while in the living room Anne’s pet chimpanzee paints pictures. And in what’s sure to become one of the iconic cinematic scenes of the year, a benefit dinner for the museum goes frighteningly, hilariously awry when a performance artist (an extraordinary Terry Notary) takes his ape-on-the-loose routine way over the line.

The title refers to an exhibit that Christian’s museum has just purchased. It is an illuminated square a couple of metres wide, declared to be ‘a sanctuary of trust and caring.’ As such, explains Christian, it’s a place within which anyone who asks for help should be given it. But Christian finds it as hard to ask for help as to apologize: despite his apparent modernity and refinement, it runs deeply counter to his primal male programming. But then, in The Square many elements of ‘decency’ – remorse, conscience, charity, altruism – along with frou-frou luxuries like art, culture and social sensitivity, are at best band-aids over our barely suppressed bestial natures. And it doesn’t seem like Östlund ever met a band-aid he didn’t enjoy peeling off, hair by excruciating hair.

Courtesy: Jessica King, The Playlist

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Directed by: 
Ruben Östlund
Running Time: 
Sweden, Denmark
English, Swedish and Danish with English subtitles
Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary
Official site: 
Screenplay by: 
Ruben Östlund

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