The Square starts with a hangover and ends with a headache, but don’t feel too bad for the well-meaning fool suffering from them. His ailments are entirely his own damn fault. This is what happens when you try to shoulder the combined weight of the world’s problems by yourself without shrugging: You buckle. In the case of our well-meaning fool, Christian (Claes Bang), that burden is made heavier by hubris, pomp, the kind of commodifiable liberal arrogance that dupes people into thinking they’re helping by responding to mass shootings and natural disasters with hashtags. Christian’s intentions are good—grand even—but he’s just one person. One person can’t wash away humanity’s woes, especially when that person is an inveterate asshole.
In Christian’s defense, “asshole” is a multifaceted term. He doesn’t live up to its worst definition, but it remains a matter of observable fact that he’s a pretty crummy example of manliness. If you know the movies of Ruben Östlund, though, this won’t come as a surprise: Crummy examples of manliness are his bread and butter. Östlund’s last movie, 2014’s superb Force Majeure, a biting satire of disgraced masculinity, is all about dissecting gender roles and finding sympathy for its protagonist following an act of humiliating cowardice. The Square explores similar thematic pursuits but couches them in an equally biting satire of the art world, and if you’re taking the mickey out of the art world, you’re taking the mickey out of the world at large. Art, after all, is innately political, and The Square has politics in its DNA.
Quite unlike the laser-focused Force Majeure, The Square sprawls. Östlund lets the film unfold slowly and methodically, and as it unfolds it reveals the best and worst sides of its backdrop, Stockholm, a beautiful city increasingly encumbered by homelessness. The issue isn’t that Stockholm’s homeless population has grown, but rather that as it has grown, better-off folks have decided that ignoring the downtrodden is preferable to aiding them. One of those better-off folks is Christian, a smug bourgeois art museum curator, who in each of his encounters with the homeless routinely turns them away or disregards them. It just so happens, and more than once, that Christian ends up on the other side of destitution, notably around The Square’s ten minute mark, when a pair of grifters relieve him of his phone, wallet and cufflinks without him realizing it. Östlund’s camera slowly zooms in on his hero as he obliviously beseeches passerby for assistance. “Could you please help me? Could I please borrow your phone?”
You can sense Östlund’s wicked smirk from the other side of the lens. Christian’s predicaments serve him right, or they would if he bothered learning from them at a greater than glacial speed. Chiefly, The Square focuses on his efforts to open a new highfalutin installation piece at the museum, titled “The Square,” which Christian describes with excessive pomp and pride: “‘The Square’ is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s a nice idea, and one he doesn’t bother living up to when he isn’t busy schmoozing with the museum’s wealthy patrons. Christian is at his most humanitarian when he has the spotlight, which is probably true for the majority of Östlund’s audience. We talk a good, compassionate talk, but God forbid we keep spare change on us to help a beggar out.
Such is The Square’s muted complexity, though, that Östlund’s underlying commentary isn’t without sympathy for either Christian or us. It’s a lot to ask a single human being to solve society’s countless ills. Sure, Christian could expect as much of himself as he does of everybody else—in one scene he asks a vagrant to safeguard his shopping bags so he can find his daughters in a crowded mall—but the film frequently doles out sharp reminders of how little difference one human can make. The Square spends just shy of two hours building up its big scene, in which an overcommitted performance artist (Terry Notary) crosses every possible social boundary and causes bedlam in an opulent dining space flush with tuxedos and evening gowns, and immediately after cuts away to rain-soaked streets littered with the unfortunate. Östlund’s message is clear: It takes more than a well-heeled idealist to shelter all of Stockholm’s displaced.
This doesn’t make Christian less of a dick on a personal level, but his priggish hypocrisy and his all-purpose douchiness are presented by Östlund as divorced from one another. Even if he was the man he pretends to be, open-hearted and caring to all, he’d still be incapable of ameliorating the public injustices he witnesses on his way to work every day (and conversely, even if he could, he might still be an insufferable twat). The Square’s contrast between categories of morality is peak Östlund. There’s no clearly defined gauge for goodness or badness here, just a palette of gray ethical relativism to offset the film’s superior construction. Östlund isn’t a flashy filmmaker, favoring fixed angles, long takes, and precise shot composition over kinetic camera movement (though he does raise the camera’s anchor during the spellbinding Notary sequence). His craft is so disciplined that it becomes as confrontational as his material. We’re forced to consider the drama before us head-on, without blinking.
You’ll want to blink, though. Such is The Square’s evocative power. Östlund gives us an audience stand-in, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist covering Christian and the museum, to channel our astonishment at Christian’s shallow vainglory, but her bewilderment isn’t necessary: Christian is just the right amount of the discernibly awful to highlight our own awfulness, and The Square is exactly the parody we need to address it.
Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Dominic West
Release Date: October 27 (NY/LA), November 3 (Boston)
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.