It's Hard to Separate the Garbage from the Art

The Square
(Sweden, 150 min.)
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary
Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square.
Magnolia Pictures
My favourite moment of The Square wasn’t something that happened in the action on screen. It transpired in the theatre.

About 90-minutes into the film, the couple a row up from me turned to one another and said, “This is awful. It makes no sense.” Then they simply looked back to the screen in tacit agreement and rode out The Square for its final hour or so.

I love that this exchange happened because it puts the whole experience of seeing The Square in dialogue with the film itself. The Square, Sweden’s bid in the Best Foreign Language Film race, is a darkly riotous satire on the contemporary art scene and writer/director Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) doesn’t let anybody off the hook. Artists, curators, programmers, critics, publicists, and marketers are all fair targets in the ridiculous business of contemporary art. If Östlund gives anyone a hard time in The Square, however, the biggest object of satire is the audience, the people who take the assumption of art at face value and embrace something without really knowing why.

So kudos to the older couple at The Square that might not have known what they were getting into. It’s great to call bullshit on a work of art, but it’s even better to give the artist’s work its full attention, engage with it, and step outside a comfort zone to discover something regardless of whether one has the taste for it. Who knows what conversation ensued after, but at least they called out Östlund on his bullshit without dismissing the film entirely.

One could see two moviegoers who endure 60 extra minutes of a film they don’t like as validating Östlund’s point: It’s hard to separate the garbage from the art. The Square is art because the artist says it is, and now that this year’s Cannes jury validated this sense by awarding the film the Palme d’Or and getting in on the joke, the masses have to praise it.

The Square invites audiences to engage with the question of what makes any creative production a work of art. The film introduces the curator Christian (Claes Bang, a delightful mix of suave and sleaze) as he sits in an interview with arts reporter Anne (Elisabeth Moss, very fun playing the skeptic) and she asks him to clarify a ramblingly obtuse academic theory from his blog. Claes answers by asking if Anne’s handbag becomes a work of art if one places it in a display and calls it so. Anne, somewhat bewildered, looks around at the bizarre art installation behind Christian (rows upon rows of identical piles of gravel) and cautiously, unconvincingly, agrees that she sees his point. She really sees through him though, because much of what comes after shows that this guy is full of shit.

Christian is promoting a new series of provocative contemporary art at his Swedish museum. The centrepiece of the new show is an installation called “The Square.” “The Square” is a simple shape of white rope lighting fitted within the terrace in the museum square. A placard advises that the square is a place where all people are equal. It’s a harmonious site that encourages art aficionados to do the right thing. Not a particularly avant garde philosophy, but the simplicity of “The Square” follows the kind of minimalist aesthetic that often invites audiences to dismiss a work of art. (Sometimes rightly and sometimes not.)

The museum’s PR team envisions a campaign to engage the masses with the altruistic premise of “The Square.” They imagine a viral video featuring a vulnerable homeless child with a small kitten, but when she steps into “The Square,” she explodes, thus igniting the viewer’s perceptions of right and wrong. The commercial aims to inspire audiences to recognize the choice to be good and relate this charitable emotion to the power of “The Square” and art more broadly.

The campaign, naturally, goes horribly wrong and Christian becomes the centre of a controversy where the museum is exploitative on one hand for commissioning the video and conservative on the other hand if it notes a limit to free speech and self-expression. The art finds itself engulfed by a greater conversation that the art world can’t answer.

This commercial is just one of the brazen and satirical episodes that Östlund delivers throughout The Square’s lengthy two-and-a-half-hour running time. The episodic structure of the film sees Christian blunder one step after another as he encounters a mixture of well-to-do art snobs and homeless or vulnerable people. These episodes invite him to extend the charitable philosophy of “The Square” when he steps outside the vacuum of the art world. More often than not, people will do the right thing, but Östlund’s dark and often cynical presentation of humanity suggests that we aren’t as innately good as we like to think we are.

Some hilarious and cringe-worthy scenes inside the museum’s self-indulgent buffet illustrate this point. The exhibition’s opening night gala features a bizarre live performance featuring a robust actor (Terry Notary) play the part of a monkey man who storms the dinner and aggravates guests with hoots, pokes, and heavy panting. His actions push the line of acceptable decorum, but the politeness of the guests allows the show to continue. The piece becomes violent and escalates beyond the museum’s control, yet only a few guests flee until the performance gets out of hand. Whether it’s art or not isn’t the point, but rather the complacency of the guests and their willingness to tolerate unacceptable behaviour provides a good chuckle to consider.

The centrepiece of The Square’s squirm inducing black comedy sees Christian and Anne argue about the disposal of the condom after they spend the night together. They bicker in a tug-of-war about the post-coital contraceptive without voicing the motivation Christian suspects. It’s a lot like that Seinfeld episode where the gang talks about being master of one’s domain. Anne’s third encounter with Christian sees her confront him after this night and she asks him about his promiscuity. He can’t justify his actions, nor can he confront the horrible fact that he suspected Anne of trying to harvest his. They stand surrounded by all the bizarre objets d’art in the collection, like a rickety mountain of chairs that have no apparent meaning or value, as she calls out his behaviour. Production designer Josefin Åsberg has a riot creating these nonsensical artworks that evoke the vacuity of the contemporary art scene, but invite audiences to consider the purpose of the canvas before them.

The Square is bloated, sharp, and often self-indulgent as Östlund relishes the role of the auteur. The film’s bold sense of humour weighs art as something to be prized, consumed, and discarded, and if one embraces the film or rejects it, Östlund seems to have achieved his purpose. Whether The Square is good or bad is entirely up to you, but one can hardly argue against it being a work of art.

The Square is now playing in Toronto at Canada Square and TIFF Lightbox.