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The Square's high-concept comedy targets both the art world and the social contract

Uncomfortable and hilarious, the critically praised satirical film asks what we owe one another.

A scene from The Square
The Square is not here to mess around.
Arte France Cinema
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

If, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, then The Square’s Christian (Claes Bang) is headed straight to Hades. But then again, the movie would like to remind us, the rest of us are right behind him.

Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May for The Square, his high-concept takedown of our high-minded ideals and the myriad ways we flub them in execution. Burying self-referential allusions in the background and merrily poking viewers till they bruise, The Square at times feels more like longform performance art than a narrative film. It’s social satire by way of art-world comedy, and no woke participant is exempt from its barbs.

Does that sound like heaven, as it does to me? Then The Square is extremely your movie. Those less excited by the prospect of nerding out on social theory and wryly barbed situational humor may find themselves checking their watches — but even when it seems aimless, The Square is compulsively watchable.

The Square jabs spikily at both contemporary art and the world around it

Christian is the sophisticated, handsome, and very earnest chief curator of a (fictional) contemporary art museum in Stockholm. It’s the kind of museum familiar to a certain kind of urbanite: spare, glossy, designed for large-scale idea-driven exhibitions and enlightening talks with visiting artists. It houses, for instance, an installation called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel,” which consists of exactly what it sounds like, accompanied by all-caps neon wording that reads YOU HAVE NOTHING.

Even people who love this stuff can sometimes have a hard time taking it completely seriously, but Christian seems determined to do just that. He’s particularly excited about an upcoming exhibition called “The Square,” which examines social norms and aims to create a radical space “of trust and caring.” The exhibition pushes visitors to think about how they relate to those around them by migrating what happens outside the museum walls inside — a topic called “relational aesthetics.” (This is a real thing.)

Claes Bang in The Square
Claes Bang in The Square.

The Square takes this exhibition as its sly symbolic theme, popping squares (mostly paintings and architectural framings) behind Christian when he gets stuck in the middle of an ethical quandary, which is often. He’s a man with a lot of very liberal-minded notions about empathy, compassion, and equality who keeps running into walls when interacting with real-life people.

The largest of these walls appears right at the beginning of the film, when, on his way to work, he is stopped in the middle of a town square by a woman fleeing a man and decides to help her, only to discover later that he’s been the target of a con. He decides to fight back. It doesn’t go well.

Christian has largely kept his life humming along by compartmentalization, putting his ideals in one box, his fathering in another, his work in another, his sex life in another, and so on — an exercise in abstraction, which keeps life clean of messy personal ties and emotions. Emotions and empathy aren’t really his thing. He can’t seem to remember women’s names. He’s self-involved enough to hurriedly approve a heinous advertising campaign without realizing how bad it will be. He has to practice speeches in which he will appear to spontaneously ditch his notes and “speak from the heart” in the bathroom mirror beforehand.

That kind of tendency toward abstraction is clearly an asset his professional life, in a field where jargon roams free. When he’s interviewed about his work and the exhibition by a journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss), he resorts to the kind of explanation that sounds like word salad; when she reads to him a curator’s statement she found on the museum’s website, something about “Exhibition / Non-Exhibition,” even he can’t really explain it.

There is a utility to the weirdness of the discourse around contemporary art, of course, as long as you already speak the language. The fondness for making self-contradictory statements — for saying a work of art is, say, “real and not real” — comes from a deep-rooted desire among artists and curators to keep art from having just one takeaway. Most contemporary art wants to make the viewer uncomfortable.

Dominic West and Terry Notary in The Square
Dominic West and Terry Notary in The Square.

But we get the feeling that until now, Christian’s finely tuned ability to speak the language of contemporary art has turned into a way to avoid reality. He doesn’t seem terribly connected to his children, nor does he seem to have a lot of friends. His employees seem surprised when he addresses them directly. When he sleeps with Anne (in one of cinema’s funniest, least sexy sex scenes ever), it’s not emotional and barely even transactional; he can’t get out of his own head.

That disconnection from others is, somewhat ironically, in direct contradiction to his beloved “relational aesthetics,” which tries to break barriers between human social interactions and the traditionally isolated contexts in which art is shown and experienced.

The film takes that to heart. It isn’t just interested in the art world, after all. It takes on, by turns, the family, the neighborhood, the professional environment, the bedroom, the mall, and the world of social media (including the requisite pitchfork-toting mobs). It’s a whirlwind tour through the ways we interact with one another and, more importantly, the ways we fail to do it with anything approaching competence.

The Square is a twisted attempt to crack the social contract

The Square is loaded with ideas — maybe too loaded. It’s a little hard to know at times whether the film is sincerely trying to explore those ideas or make fun of the idea of trying, or maybe both. Every scene can be picked apart for what it says, or seems to want to say, about how humans relate to one another through speech, through art, through nonverbal communication, through tacitly agreed-upon social cues, through trust (or its lack). Civil society is but a thin veneer over a more animal reality, The Square seems to say, backing it up with an excruciating scene in which a performance artist (Terry Notary) breaks down the barriers between man and animal in a room full of black-tied cosmopolitans. The social contract is about a strong as a bit of thread.

That critique is extra barbed in the context of the sophisticated contemporary art world, with its finely tuned hierarchies and purposely walled-off institutions. The perverseness of a field that practically defines the idea of “elite” yet also often tries to protest that it’s for everyone is the main locus of Östlund’s jabs, though he’s not really suggesting we ought to burn it all down. The Square, after all, premiered at Cannes — a festival literally closed to the public — and won the poshest of posh film prizes. It’s more of an inside ballgame, high art making cracks about high art and the people who make it and watch it, including everyone watching this movie.

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square
Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square.

But The Square doesn’t get so high on its own heady supply that it forgets to be funny. It is very funny, though often through a dark lens. When Anne confronts Christian about their night together, it’s in a gallery containing some kind of installation that appears to be a giant pile of chairs, which keeps rattling loudly and interrupting their conversation at a regular interval, and it’s exactly the dose of comedy that keeps the scene light. One moment, in which a chef hollers for a stampede of museum donors at a dinner to stop moving so he can meekly tell them the buffet’s offerings, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen in a movie.

Ideas rule the day, though; every scene in The Square has an implicit idea about power dynamics and social norms, even the funny ones. (The odd effect is that The Square feels overstuffed, but it’s almost impossible to imagine what you’d take out — not, perhaps on purpose, unlike some big crowded art museums.) A scene in which a visiting artist (Dominic West) giving a talk is interrupted repeatedly by a man in the audience with Tourette’s syndrome, and the whole room struggles to figure out how exactly they’re supposed to react, plays as both satire and comedy — and we’re obviously meant to be laughing at the audience, not the man with Tourette’s. But we’re in the audience too. They’re not the only uncomfortable ones.

Östlund’s point seems to be that what makes us human is less about our capacity for empathy and more about how uncomfortable we get when cracks appear in the trust that keeps us from tearing each other apart. Our good, liberal-minded intentions for making a better world are rarely enough to keep us from our baser instincts, The Square suggests, when things really get down to brass tacks. Underneath all the trappings of civilization, we maintain those bare animal drives: rage, anger, lust, territorialism.

Then, with a wink and a grin, the film turns around and tests out its own ideas on us, bouncing on the implicit trust between audience and filmmaker, daring us to see just how far we’ll go along with it. If you ask me, it’s worth going along for the ride.

The Square premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens in limited theaters on October 27.

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