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‘The Square’: comfort food for the self-loathing

By Luke Goodsell
Ruben Östlund’s hilarious film is an uneasy mix of silliness and brow-furrowing

Few things excite well-meaning liberal audiences more than being scolded for their bourgeois attitudes, and in Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which charts the unravelling of a blithe gallery curator’s comfortable existence, they’re served up an art-house platter of guilt and chin-stroking class critique. That the film won the coveted Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival is no surprise, while its nomination for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards all but sealed its middlebrow credentials. Despite its considerable smarts – and this is a clever, fitfully hilarious work – The Square faces a classic festival-film dilemma: it’s art that threatens to resemble the very subject of its critique, indulging its smug audience with a knowing sense of collusion.

Nominally a satire of the contemporary art world, Östlund’s film is set in and around the fictitious Stockholm museum X-Royal, the kind of institution that’s transformed a stately old-world palace into a forum for buzzy exhibits designed to lure big crowds. Its handsomely crumpled curator, Christian (Claes Bang), presides with frayed detachment, his life held together by expensive neckerchiefs, GQ looks and a spin-doctor gift for expediency. Tasked with overseeing the gallery’s flagship new piece – a conceptual art work called The Square, which is billed as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” for patrons – Christian’s facile life is upended by a chain of increasingly farcical circumstances that the filmmaker throws his way.

Östlund, whose previous Force Majeure (2014) applied a wry scalpel to a patriarchal meltdown, likes to push and prod his subjects like hapless dolls in a fateful puppet show. The hunt for a stolen phone thus sends Christian into an awkward, potentially criminal ethno-cultural predicament, his flirtatious relationship with American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) needles the institutional dynamics of male power, and a disastrous publicity campaign for the new exhibit adds corporate funding, social media, and viral-chasing millennials to the film’s satirical targets.

It’s certainly a lot. The Square works when it adheres to Östlund’s agreeably puerile strain of humour, which can manifest in comedy skit obviousness – an early interview finds Christian perched in an antiseptic white space, the words YOU HAVE NOTHING framing his profile – or generate cheerful visual gags, like when a gilded palace statue is indifferently beheaded by the construction team clearing the grounds for the new exhibit. The ultra-grisly viral campaign conceived by two ad agency douches, meanwhile, is about as plausible as an old Monty Python gag – yet its silliness is preferable to the movie’s brow-furrowing elsewhere.

Christian is a slippery audience avatar. Though sympathetic, his noble intentions towards workplace diversity, the underprivileged, and the greater good are motivated by self-preservation – witness a scene in which Christian doles out cash to a homeless woman, not in a spirit of generosity, but as performative altruism – and reflect an all-too-familiar behaviour among certain types who occupy prominent positions in the arts. Bang’s world-weary performance is wise enough to suggest a more complex man beyond the character, too. “Why is it so hard to admit that power is a turn on?” Christian asks Anne at one point, post-sex; moments earlier, he’d clung to his used condom like a mewling child unwilling to give up its toy – a cheerfully gross metaphor for men coveting their power at all costs. Such moments distil Östlund’s grander themes to funny, filthy sketches, and the film is livelier for them.

Yet just as much of The Square busies itself with laboured observations, with entry-level “what is art?” jokes and broad strokes applied to class and privilege. (Raise a glass of expensive white every time Östlund shows a homeless person begging on the street.) The film’s easy targets align it with the kind of bourgeois takedown that’s come to epitomise a good chunk of post-Haneke European festival cinema, work that seems to enter into an unspoken contract with its audience – it’s satire for and by liberal intellectuals, effectively comfort food for the self-loathing set. (Look no further than the aggressively quirky a cappella music here, goofily punctuating every second episode of social crisis.) Whether intentional or not, The Square’s thunderous central irony – that the concept of the eponymous work of art isn’t practised by those curating it – might arguably stand in for the film itself.

Östlund’s film is at its best when playfully pushing its own boundaries, be it through the absurd – Anne inexplicably sharing an apartment with a lipstick-wearing chimpanzee – or the abrasive – during a Q&A session a blowhard, pyjama-clad artist (Dominic West) is shredded by an audience member with Tourette syndrome. The film’s most memorable sequence, unfolding at a black-tie arts gala, features a howling, simian-like performance artist (played by beefcake Hollywood choreographer Terry Notary) who taunts the assembled patrons well beyond their comfort threshold, allowing Östlund to explode the latent intolerance of his otherwise urbane guests in violent, confrontational fashion.

But Östlund’s willingness to diffuse such outbursts moments later speaks the central conundrum of his film: as intelligent and well assembled as The Square is, it lets its audience off the hook with a wink at every turn. Even Christian’s final plight – literally reduced to rummaging through the trash that he’s become – is too clean, too art directed to be uncomfortable.

Luke Goodsell

Luke Goodsell is a critic and editor who has contributed to the ABC, SBS and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

@timebombtown

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