'The Square' is a darkly funny critique of the art world
The Daily orignially ran a version of this review as part of our coverage of the Cannes Film Festival. It is reprinted here in honor of the film's U.S. release.
In classic Scandinavian fashion, Swedish director Ruben Östlund (“Force Majeure”) delivers a biting satirical piece that ridicules the elitism of the art world and exposes the hypocrisy of the upper class. Set in Stockholm, “The Square” follows the everyday minutia of a fine art museum and its esteemed head curator (Claes Bang, “Sibel & Max”). Winner of the Palme D’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, “The Square” is thought-provoking, poignant and hilarious.
The film doesn’t contain much by way of a plot; instead, “The Square” is structured as a series of short scenes that work together to construct an image of the fine art world and the people who inhabit it. With cinematography reminiscent of fellow Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson, Östlund employs the affordances of stylized still shots to create the effect of an unbiased camera, therefore enabling the viewer to work out the nuances of the scene themselves. Furthermore, Östlund’s film reads like one long episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” with one seemingly insignificant event in the beginning that inevitably ends up causing stress for the protagonist at the end. However, while “Curb” deals with the mundane and insignificant idiosyncrasies of life, “The Square” addresses important socioeconomic issues.
In his film, Östlund masterfully employs satire to ridicule the elitism of the professionals in the fine art realm. Östlund utilizes satire in a way that disrupts the idiosyncrasies of museum life and reveals the ridiculous sense of self-importance that permeates the art world. One of the film’s strongest scenes features a museum-organized interview with an artist who speaks with a pretentious air about his new exhibit, which is essentially piles of dirt in a row. During this talk, a man with Turrets Syndrome repeatedly shouts expletives at the artist and the moderator, disrupting the event while everyone tries to act casual. Here and in countless other moments in the film, satire is used to ultimately challenge the fine art culture of pretentious intellectualism and the constant maintenance of this façade.
“The Square” does more than expose the egotism of the fine art community; gradually, the light satirical moments of the film build to make a much more serious social commentary. The film is heavily preoccupied with beggars and poverty; the film explores classism in Swedish society that leaves lower class communities marginalized, vulnerable and voiceless. After a series of seemingly disconnected mishaps, Christian realizes that his own innate selfishness is a product of institutionalized racism and classism. The film ends with Christian trying to make amends and correct his mistakes, but there is no resolution — mirroring society’s lack of a solution for fixing the broken system that leaves certain communities systematically disadvantaged. Östlund approaches this commentary brilliantly, weaving in the darker element with the humor so that the viewer doesn’t realize the gravity of his message until they are irreversibly hooked.
Östlund’s careful staging and aimless story make the film seem like a piece of performative art itself. But instead of creating a piece that is empty in its ridiculousness, Östlund invites viewers to think critically about the complex themes being discussed, even in bizarre and literally monkeyish ways. “The Square” is darkly amusing and bracingly honest, and will keep you thinking for days afterwards.