What is art? Is art bullsh*t? What makes something art?
Writer-director Ruben Östlund has staked his career on making thoroughly provocative pictures. His breakout hit, 2014’s FORCE MAJEURE, had us asking how we’d behave in the face of a potential crisis, showing how one family’s relationship changes when an avalanche comes close to burying them. And now, with THE SQUARE, the auteur stirs up further incendiary discussion on art, society and humanity at large. Mixing absurdist comedy with clever commentary, this is the exact type of movie you need to see with someone to discuss it in depth after. It’s a satirical, wild ride. It’s ART!
Christian (Claes Bang), the charitable curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, is in the midst of chaos. His upcoming installation (from which this film gets its name), a 4×4 foot neon square that preaches altruism and social responsibility, is in desperate need of a hook. Naturally, this modern art piece winds up impacting art lovers in the exact opposite way. Christian’s life goes topsy-turvy after a mugging and sleeping with journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, who’s this film’s MVP). The museum’s millennial hipster PR team, in the questionable pursuit of going viral, creates a campaign that’s more schlock than shock. The public’s response is overwhelmingly negative, sending everyone into the throes of an existential crisis. Oh and there’s a fancy black-tie dinner where a guy (Terry Notary, “Rocket” and movement choreographer from the APES trilogy) imitates an ape and assaults the party guests.
Östlund incorporates his messages seamlessly through satire. This will appeal to both the crowds who love and hate art. The opening conversation between Anne and Christian had me howling with laughter, not just at Moss’ perfectly timed reactions, but also at Christian’s magnificently pretentious answers. The slow-burn awkwardness is the artistry that comes out of the sequence involving their post-coital bliss. The scene where she confronts Christian leaves him off-guard and slightly vulnerable, exposing his bougie shallowness. The sound of the chair pile installation in the background, which becomes heightened as Anne’s argument grows, adds to the dramatics. The long-running gag about the gravel pile exhibit is equally as funny.
The city’s powerless people – the homeless and a man suffering from Tourette’s – are juxtaposed against the privileged Christian and his comrades. Some of the latter, like artist Julian (Dominic West) and co-worker Michael (Christopher Læssø), handle it better than others. The filmmaker exposes the cavernous divide between rich and the poor, which doesn’t feel that wide from Christian’s flawed perspective. Though he remains moneyed, our hero’s morals are chipped away throughout – best demonstrated where he verbally and physically spars with a young kid who was punished thanks to Christian’s careless actions. Östlund utilizes the God’s eye to gaze upon his protagonist, adding indelible imagery of the dizzying square staircase and a tux-clad Christian rummaging in the trash in the pouring rain. The undertones of distrust of art and the media become overtones after the visceral dinner party scene. Not only will this probably be this film’s most talked about scene, it’s also where Östlund really challenges his viewers to confront their feelings on the subject through the cinematic avatars of the party-goers.
Despite feeling about twenty minutes too long, Östlund’s larger observations will assuredly carry over into your everyday lives. It will change the way you view and understand art, the artist and the observers.
THE SQUARE opens in limited release on October 27.