Of all the films I had the opportunity to see at the film festival in Gent, Ruben Östlund’s painfully humorous The Square was the only one which brought tears to my eyes with laughter. Östlund’s cinematic portrait is as satirical as it is dark, teasing one absurd misfortune after another in the life of the straight-edged but seemingly innocuous Christian (played by Danish actor Claes Bang), lead curator of a highly successful contemporary art museum. The tale he tells continuously jabs at society and holds it at knife’s edge. Wanting to make his gallery a big hit, he is persuaded by his PR team that a provocative, performance-related installation is needed to stir up a great social media scandal. Thus he inaugurates “The Square”, an enclosed space dictating the way people should behave responsibly. Dramatic music accompanies the carving of a luminescent square into the pavement at the gallery’s entrance (Östlund here uses soundtrack with sarcasm not too dissimilar from his equally dramatic film Force Majeure).
This introduces the way The Square incorporates humour to cast a shade of irony on the world of contemporary arts and compare it to societies’ absurdities. That being said, Christian’s philosophy is immediately put to the test when his wallet and phone gets stolen with a show of empathy tricking better than any performance that could take place in his gallery. After locating his device to a block of apartments on a ‘Find My Phone’ app, he sets outs in a bizarre mood of aggression to take revenge on his perpetrator – soaring down the highway blasting Genesis’ ‘Justice’, he arrives at the block and shoves letters into every mailbox threatening to impose terror if his belongings are not returned. Although he miraculously does get his possession back, his act catapults into a series of other unforeseen events.
One can see Östlund takes great pleasure filling his films with what he calls “horrifying awkward moments.” Encounters are all too frequently so embarrassing they are painful and funny to watch. Protagonists are uncomfortably faced with more than one possibility how to act that there are only inappropriate ways of doing things. In the film’s absurd universe, Christian all too frequently finds himself to be the victim of every situation he is faced with: his colleague, who comes up with the idea of sending letters forces Christian to enter the apartment block to do his own dirty work. His encounters with an American reporter (Elizabeth Moss) are as fierce when she grills him on the meaning of his art as she is confronting him about stealing his condom after they have sex. When his wildly inappropriate promo video backfires, he is slaughtered by the press.
Finally, the film’s highlight is the appearance of a young boy and one of the block’s unfortunate inhabitants. Accused by his parents of sending the letter as a prank and unrightfully banning him from his play station, he hunts down Christian and goes on a rampage to try make him apologise for his actions. At this point Christian is so frustrated by his own predicament that he refuses to apologise in spite of the boy’s persistent pleads because, well, why should he be culpable for a series of stupid events when he could not foresee his own mugging? And why should he bother with other people’s problems when he only wants to return to his own ‘normal’ life?
What Östlund really wants to talk about from one bizarre display to the next is people’s lack of altruism and oblivion to the problems of others: an inability, in other words, to think outside their own ‘box’. In the beautifully choreographed scene of his own robbery, Christian at first refuses the request for money from a by-standing beggar only to find himself afterwards being refused help from the crowd. The irony of the square’s meaning is pushed to the next excruciating level, bordering on violence, in a scene of the gallery’s inaugural dinner.
This event is commenced by a piece of The Square’s art installation: a man with mannerisms of an ape walks into the decadent hall. What initially starts as a performance soon gets out of hand and involves chasing a prominent artist out of the hall and violating the crowd. The enclosed space situating predator and prey is a perfect display of the animal hunting instinct – that if one displays fear or tries to run, the animal will sense it and hunt the prey down. The only way therefore to be safe is to remain still, and blend into the herd: which is what happens when the ape begins harassing a girl and no one responds. As Östlund himself describes, “Being a prey is something involuntary: we put quite some guilt in the individual when it comes to situations like this … but the reason that we end up in this situation is that we are herd animals and we don’t know how to react.
Film Fest Gent‘s programmers picked films working to “unveil modern utopias”: The Square in this regard is a perfect example of a film that tries to pick up apart the modern societal condition. The case of the man-ape is just a mockery of the surreal situations Christian is confronted with and forcing him to think outside of his square. When he finally sends a voice message to the boy to apologise, he continues trying in vain to explain the bigger picture from which his behaviour emerged, and also his segregation from the boy’s way of life that has made him turn a blind eye. The Square is Östlund‘s next cinematic achievement to critically and cruelly inspect human behaviour.
Watch the trailer for The Square