I went to see Robert Östlund’s film THE SQUARE expecting a satirical gibe at post-modernist art, and wondering what new it could offer. From half-cows in formaldehyde to unmade beds to the tools and carpenter’s horses blocking the stairs in a staid old Swiss museum (Why have the workmen left their things here, I wanted to know, and was told dismissively, that’s an installation) doesn’t all this satirize itself? I was both right and wrong. The art satire is there, and very funny, but it’s also a vehicle for something more. Like an acclaimed earlier Östlund film, FORCE MAJEURE, this is about tests of character, about morality, about fundamental questions of courage and trust.
The story begins with Christian (Claes Bang), the handsome and celebrated director of a very avant-garde museum, being interviewed by a journalist (Elizabeth Moss). She is curious about what makes an object art. He asks: Is your handbag art? She thinks not. He takes the handbag and puts it on the museum floor. Now it is or can be. Context is all. (I could not help wondering if Elizabeth Moss’s kitchen-scissors-chop hairdo is also a statement; if an expensive hairdresser has made this mess, is it the new chic?)
When Christian leaves the museum and joins a hurrying crowd, a young woman runs past him crying for help. No-one pauses. No-one even pays attention; but when a pursuing man threatens to catch her, Christian and one other man do stop him. The pursuer curses and flees. The two heroes, alone in their bravery and compassion, hug each other, though no names are exchanged. When Christian gets home, he finds his phone and wallet are gone.
But now I must describe the square of the title; it is simply a square we see punched out of the pavement and outlined in stones. We are given the artist’s explanation of her work. The square is to be a place of kindness and compassion, of help for anyone who enters it. The hungry one will be fed, the thirsty one given water, the lonely find company. Whatever you lack, if you step into the square, someone will bestow it.
We go back to Christian, who really wants his phone and wallet returned. His assistant has an idea. They have located the tenement where the phone must be, so why not deliver a threatening letter to every flat there, demanding the stolen goods’ recovery. However, when they reach the tenement, the two men lose their nerve and argue over who should post the letters. Finally and very nervously Christian does. The phone and wallet shortly reappear but so does an irate little boy demanding an apology for the insult to his family in accusing them of theft.
Tests of trust or courage continue through the film. There is the obligatory bonking scene, with Christian and the journalist – but this one has a twist. (Forgive me if there’s an obscene pun here). Done with their sex, the two quarrel over who should dispose of the filled condom, each insisting on doing it and finally, like children, pulling, one at each end. What on earth is this about, I thought, and then something dawned; is Christian afraid, as he is such an attractive and successful alpha male, the woman wants to use his sperm to impregnate herself? Bizarre as this sounds I can think of no other explanation.
Or again: Christian, spending rare free time with his daughters, goes to a gymnastic exhibition at their school. The kids are very skilled; their handstands and pyramids display courage and unfailing confidence – in each other. Is Lund saying here that children, at least these children, have the bravery and trust the adults lack?
Also, in one of the funniest scenes, a cleaning machine moves warily between the heaps of earth or sand that are some famous artist’s installation. For all the care, some heaps are disturbed, as Christian’s staff come anxiously to tell him. Just put some dirt back, is the answer and solution. One wonders, is the artist’s trust of the museum to protect his carefully positioned regular heaps being betrayed here? Does Christian care? Does Christian know how absurd some of his exhibitions are?
In his own apartment house, Christian has a final confrontation with the persistent little boy from the tenement who keeps turning up. Christian pushes him down a flight of stairs and we hear his repeated cries for help. I expected to see an injured child at the bottom of the steps; but it seems these must be calls from Christian’s conscience, calls in his head, for the boy has disappeared. The scene ends with Christian, in a conscience crisis, scrabbling frantically through heaps of rubbish to find the boy’s address which he had thrown away. When he gets to the flat whose number the boy gave, he is told there is no child living there. Another scam? This particular episode did leave me mystified; but then, nothing in this film is quite what it first seems.
I won’t describe the film’s most dramatic and disturbing scene, the evening of performance art, so as not to spoil the truly harrowing suspense; but the issues of courage and trust apply here as well. To sum up, everything we see outside the square is the opposite of what should happen inside the square, is the picture of a corrupt, false, cowardly and indifferent world.
We never see anyone step into the square. What we do see is the advertising for this installation and for the museum. Two young publicists, asked by Christian to do something more in tune with current youth, produce a video. A small toddler holding her doll is shown entering the square, an image of trusting innocence; she promptly explodes into smithereens. So here is a crowning irony. The square, meant as a magic place of kindness and trust, is advertised by a scene of ultimate betrayal and horrific death. The video goes viral and is too much even for Christian’s followers. After the fury over this video and over the fiasco of the performance art evening, Christian is compelled to resign.
The square in THE SQUARE clearly doesn’t work, either as a magic sanctuary or a piece of art. THE SQUARE however works brilliantly on all its levels; and that is praise indeed.
Volume 33.no.1 September / October 2018 pp 35-36