Vol 13, Issue 1
THE SQUARE features dark-haired, scarf-wearing art curator ‘Christian’ as he fumbles through a blur of baffling situations, dealing with art, theft, beggars, society, sex, and the meaning of a particular four-sided shape. While the film attempts to masquerade as an artful social critique, it falls flat in its lack of focus, and emerges as a bland and uninspired whine about the general pitfalls of society.
Written and directed by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, the film endeavors to satirize a whirlwind of constructs. Interspersed with a wry sense of humor and a curious sound design, this whirlwind/these constructs make for a peculiar experience. Östlund fundamentally denounces the disconnect between society and humanity with a camera that most of the time stands back, and disconnects itself from its subject, wiping its hands clean of any emotional partiality.
While ambitious, the film often seems unfocused, but establishes itself by a number of tonally masterful scenes, most remarkably the unsettling answer to Östlund’s self-posed question: “This internationally recognized artist is pretending to be a wild beast. What happens when he enters a room full of people in tuxedos?”
However, the most notable idea comes with the Square itself, an art exhibition described repeatedly through the film with the exact same phrasing: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The lack of controversy surrounding this artwork becomes lambasted by the marketing team as commercially unviable, and well, plain boring. They strike a scandalous idea to showcase it in a horrific and unexpected fashion, and it attracts attention. From this comes a message that literally flashes on the screen: How much inhumanity does it take before we access your humanity? And at this point, the film shoots itself with its own gun.
The Square is a satire. The purpose of a satire is to be subversive. This film is unevocative, uncontroversial, and subversive only to the extent to which it is safe to be so, and therefore, not subversive. One narrative strand concerns the undisputedly unsavory fact that people ignore the homeless. Another concerns the narcissism of the powerful. Another, the selfishness of the rich. How much inhumanity does it take? Much more than this, Östlund. You’re scrambling foot deep in a series of shallow didactics that appease the liberal mindset in such a way that bores, tires, and slogs any interesting contemplations to complete stagnation.
Such a film feeds the epidemic of European art-house film-making that falsely equates slight audience discomfort with powerful sociopolitical criticism.
Combine facile social critique, idiosyncratic characterizations, classical music, an attractive cast, and an appealing colour palette, and it becomes lauded as a masterpiece. Variations of the same beguiling theme blast in all art-house cinemas, and movies by Östlund, Lanthimos, Haneke, Sorrentino and Kaurismaki are all guilty, though admittedly, to different extents. Obsessed with turning a mirror on everyone but themselves, uncharitable to the point just before they are willing to sacrifice their precious aesthetics, these filmmakers toot their own horn and leave the room before emptying their spit valves.
The Square itself emphasizes freedom of expression, but it doesn’t really have that much to express. Instead, in a self-congratulatory fashion, it gives just enough ambiguity to make it ‘artistic’, just enough commentary to make it ‘thought-provoking’, and just enough eccentricity to convince you that it’s ‘special’. But the formula is tired, it lacks spark, and, much like the Square in the film, it’s holistically boring, and barely art.
Valerie Ng is a first-year JD student
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