Ruben Ostlund’s The Square presents itself as a satire of the age — perhaps the satire of our age since it addresses the incivility that is now inescapable after the 2016 election. Cool indifference is what lies behind the feigned social consciousness and sanctimony of politicians and our empowered media class. Ostlund cleverly sets this problem in the art world where Christian (Claes Bang), fashionable curator for a museum in Stockholm, becomes involved in — what else? — a controversy.
Christian must deal with issues of politically correct insensitivity that arise from an exhibit called “The Square” — a work designed to compel viewers to examine their empathy and the qualities now put in question by the West’s global immigration crisis. He’s not named Christian for nothing, and that is part of what makes The Square important as well as overly obvious.
Moral scrutiny based on Judeo-Christian tradition has become virtually nonexistent in most Millennial movies — which are primarily devoted to shrill excitation or nihilism — yet Ostlund’s satirical approach is part of the same problem. His narrative recalls Michael Haneke’s 2005 Caché, a pseudo-suspenseful investigation into France’s lingering racism and remorse about colonizing Algeria. In The Square, Ostlund instead mocks modern Sweden’s open-borders ambivalence. The film’s cool, sleek look simulates the antiseptic environment of an art gallery, which is part of Ostlund’s canny insight into how the ruling class uses art as prophylaxis — to protect itself from being disturbed by its own contradictions, such as Sweden’s fabled neutrality.
The exhibit itself, a four-sided area of cobblestones surrounded by a band of LED lights, bears an explanatory plaque: “‘The Square’ is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s an art stunt, like the movie itself, which traps Christian in his own psychological maze. His exploits occur in a style of disconnected sketches: a business conference, a mugging, retaliation for the mugging, a one-night stand with a female arts journalist (Elisabeth Moss), examples of Sweden’s new swarthy underclass of impertinent beggars. These deliberately evoke the tableaux of Sweden’s black-out sketch master Roy Andersson (Songs from the Second Floor and You, the Living). They also recall Kubrick.
Ostlund employs long, ostentatious compositions that impose themselves on your concentration by deliberately obscuring information (action or people generally heard off-screen). Kubrick’s chilly imagery and humor were once significant, when he competed with the visions of warmer master filmmakers. Now, Kubrick’s cynical influence dominates directors who are attempting to parse the millennium’s conundrum; cold cynicism is all that’s left. It renders The Square’s very smart satire toothless because an artist’s “teeth” (what pierces the complacency of most middle-brow art) are no longer connected to principled beliefs. The film’s ironic “Ave Maria” score and an early scene where traditional public art is accidentally decapitated (resonant of our current controversies over monuments) partake of a post-Kubrick nihilism — there’s little sincere faith in civilized, responsible humanity. Ostlund’s art has no bite.
Tall, handsome Bang has some of Gary Cooper’s sheepishness, which offsets his character’s arrogance. Bourgeois yet slightly seedy, like an Antonioni hero, Bang reveals that Christian isn’t all that smart (even when wearing chic red-frame eyeglasses). He likably subverts the image of white society’s ideal — a different effect than what Robert Pattinson created in Good Time, playing a street anthropologist who was as compulsive as a predatory anteater. Bang’s shock during a sex scene with Elisabeth Moss features a classic, paranoid tug-of-war. Moss, unfortunately, has become an emblem of junk art, having appeared in one of the most inept films ever made (Queen of Earth) and some of the most asinine television (Mad Men, The Handmaid’s Tale). Pathetic roles like this arts reporter who is puzzled by familiar art concepts fit too well. Moss always suggests reprimand and guilt (a modern, perverse Giulietta Masina without the charm).
Ostlund’s cynical humor falls into the art-movie pit of self-congratulation.
Despite these characterizations, Ostlund’s cynical humor falls into the art-movie pit of self-congratulation. The centerpiece scene of a Neanderthal performance artist (Terry Notary), threatening well-dressed museum patrons, is patently false. (Hitchcock made the point more disturbingly when mankind’s survivors turned killers in Lifeboat.) Ostlund inadvertently proves that in our worse-than-cynical age you can’t even épater les bourgeois: No one at the screening I attended had the confidence to laugh during the press-conference scene where Christian is bullied by the question “Where is your solidarity with the voiceless and vulnerable?” Christian doesn’t feel the spiritual impulse that Anthony Perkins in the film WUSA, portraying “the voice of Christian witness in a slough despond,” expressed so poetically: “It doesn’t matter what I am. But human life is a gift. The muck of the earth was raised up to consciousness. Blood was made warm.” Ostlund’s hero is, in the end, post-Christian.
The Square is probably the film of the year — though that’s not necessarily a good thing. The hands-across-our-alienation ending of L’Avventura (1961) was epochal, and the similar ending of The Last Picture Show (1971) confirmed a great new era in American cinema. But The Square is less than those landmarks. Despite winning this year’s Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, it reduces life to fear and apology. It’s all symptom — no relief and certainly no answer.
— Armond White is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles, at Amazon.