The Square: A Deliciously Squirmy Arthouse Comedy
Review by Aaron Haughton
The Square is a highly ambitious and hysterical satire from the mind of Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) that explores what happens when you try to put the concept of helping those in need into practice (amongst other things). The film made a splash at this year’s Cannes film festival, receiving the prestigious Palme d’Or, the festival's highest accolade, which it undoubtedly deserves. The film explores uncomfortable truths in equally uncomfortable fashion, and while the situations the film presents are extreme, they're ostensibly tangible.
Christian (played by Claes Bang) is the respected curator of a contemporary art museum, a divorced but devoted father of two who drives an electric car and supports good causes. His next exhibition is "The Square", an installation which invites passersby to altruism, reminding them of their role as responsible fellow human beings. However, as Christian soon realizes, sometimes it's difficult to live up to your own ideals; his foolish response to the theft of his phone drags him into shameful situations. Meanwhile, the museum's PR agency has created an unexpected campaign for exhibition. The public's response to the marketing tactic is overblown and sends Christian, as well as the museum, into an existential crisis.
One of the many beautiful things about The Square is its ability to cram so much into it's narrative framework; it touches on prejudice, racism, misogyny, the line between freedom of speech and obscenity, social class and societal expectations, and what constitutes as art with relentlessly gnashing satirical teeth. Östlund has no interest in making a direct or grand statement on these topics, but instead poses big questions that are reinforced by an array of bizarre, absurd and satirical situational dilemmas that happen around our central character, never providing a definitive answer, resting on the audience to arrive at their own conclusions.
The satire in the film ranges from on-the-nose sledgehammer to the discretely subtle, but never fails to be anything short of entertaining; what starts as dry humor builds to a tumultuous roar of laugh out loud fun. It's a film that seems to have it all, and there are many scenes and images that stick in my brain like some wonderful resinous substance. There hasn't been a day that's gone by since seeing the film that I haven't thought about it in some way or another, which solidifies its undeniable power and charm.
Östlund has a knack for drawing out scenes, ratcheting up the tension and awkwardness until you can't help but laugh or cringe. A perfect example of this is the performance art dinner that quickly spirals out of control in the best, most uncomfortable and confrontational way possible — which, fun fact, Östlund stated in an interview that the scene was inspired by GG Allen and his highly aggressive and confrontational stage performances. It begins in an elegant socialite ballroom, with a voice coming over the loudspeaker introducing the element of a "wild animal", which ends up being a man impersonating an ape (played motion capture artist Terry Notary), who quickly locates the alpha male, driving him away before focusing on his next primal instinct of reproduction. Needless to say, the performance isn't well received by the Swede upperclass.
Östlund, like the PR agency in the film, seeks to shoot for something bold with his high ambition, and I think it succeeds overall. It's not quite perfect and some of the satire may be hit or miss, but you have to give the film a standing ovation for its ambitious reach, even if it doesn't quite stand as tall as it thinks it does at times.
While the film maybe doesn't need to run for 2.5 hours, the enormity of its running time is never really felt. Personally, I was so enveloped in the world and Christian's situation that I was willing and open to sit through more. The place in which the film leaves you is odd and bittersweet, which feels a little flat when compared to the rest of the ride leading up to that final moment.
The Square is a film that begs to be experienced, and words just can't do it proper justice. I would highly recommend this film. It constantly veers into the unexpected, which is an all out delight to watch unfold. It's the type of squirmy humor that benefits from a theater setting, especially a full one, because seeing how different people react to the film's uncomfortable events, to me, is part of the fun.
Rating: 4.5 blown up child beggars outta 5.
What did you think of the film? Did it go on too long? Was Östlund's satire not subtle enough to be enjoyed? Did you love the ending? We want to know. Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments section below, and as always, remember to viddy well!