This Swedish film, winner of the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and directed by Ruben Östlund, goes to extremes to point out the gap between upper and lower classes. It attempts to satirize contemporary art, but it only succeeds in making itself the butt of the joke.
The Square follows Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, Sweden, as he tries to understand his position in society. He encounters beggars, gets pickpocketed, and generally attempts to respond appropriately. He is interviewed by a reporter (Elisabeth Moss), and parties with world-renowned artists (Dominic West). The film is beautifully shot, and the camera lingers on Christian reacting to scenes off-camera, like a stranger staring from a distance.
His museum’s newest project is “The Square,” a minimalist contemporary exhibition which questions the viewer’s morals. Inside the square, which is installed in some cobblestones in front of the museum, has an inscription which reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” To promote the project, Christian works with a team seeking to draw likes and views through shock value rather than the art itself.
Meanwhile, Christian attempts to find the pickpocket himself, which leads him into even greater trouble. The Square uses these situations to ask us: how far can we go with free speech without limiting our creative expression? Is it our duty to help those less fortunate? And perhaps most importantly: can we trust a stranger?
In one instance, a beggar asks Christian for money in a 7-Eleven. He claims he has no cash, but would gladly buy her a sandwich. “Chicken ciabatta,” she responds at once. “No onions.” Another day, in a shopping mall, Christian asks another beggar to watch his things while he looks for his two daughters. None of the middle-class shoppers would help. The beggar patiently waits for Christian without taking a thing.
These situations are meant to illustrate larger points about today’s society, but they come off as cliche. The beggar is a central concept in The Square, often standing as a test of a character’s morals. After enough inspirational online videos and Coke commercials, however, the beggar concept feels like surface level philosophy or a simple ploy for empathy.
Perhaps that is why The Square has such unexpectedly shocking moments, calling to mind the lengths artists go to for their art in Iñárritu’s Birdman. But where The Square falls short is that it cannot rise above what it ridicules.
The Square in this film may be fictional, but this film is called The Square for a good reason; it is the opaque, contemporary art piece itself.
The Square is in theaters October 25th. We screened the film at the New York Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of Curzon Artificial Eye.