Director / Script: Ruben Östlund
Duration: 145 min
Ruben Östlund’s movie The Square is a satirical comedy and drama film, screened in 2017, whose premise aims to show the economic gap that has created a distinction not just between income levels but also between people’s behavior and attitude towards one another. The movie shows that the more money and power we possess, the less helpful we are to those in need. It also poses a serious question about art being a scapegoat for tolerating violence and the far extent to which violent behavior is accepted in the name of art. Represented by characters such as homeless people, immigrants, artists, and so on, society in this movie is comprised of some people who are hypocritical, selfish and elitist, while others that are marginalized and helpless. Östlund’s movie plays well with today’s attitudes and issues about income gap, art, and people who are different than us. Östlund tries to show how Sweden, a prosperous nordic state, has flaws and problems within its society. The movie has a main character who even though represents one of just many elitists in Western society, falls into a difficult situation that depict many instances that can take place in today’s laughable, amusing and bitter reality.
The plot revolves around Christian, the main character, who is the head art curator of a museum in Sweden. Within the first quarter of the movie, Christian finds himself in a difficult situation after getting robbed in a confidence trick by a couple of strangers and at some point, discovering that his public relations team built a controversial video to promote their new museum project known as ‘The Square’. ‘The Square’ which was conceived by an Argentine artist and sociologist Lola Arias and, is an art installation and Christian’s idea for an important piece at their new art exhibition. Christian believes that the Square is worthy of being put at the center of a large plaza in front of the museum. But the ‘mundane’ square, as the marketing team puts it in the movie, receives little to no attention though the small area bounded by a thick strip of light has a message that Christian wants to spread and so he recites in front of a crowd at the exhibition’s opening ceremony. He says: “‘The Square’ is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” As pleasant as this message sounds, Christian’s character in retrospect is the opposite of a pleasant, generous man.
We see that Christian himself is a fraud; he does not think twice about helping the poor and becomes what Östlund wants to depict for us as an exemplary character who is part of the modern society. The movie begins with an intriguing soundtrack and Christian taking a nap on a sofa. He gets woken up by his museum assistant to attend an interview in which he answers the interviewer’s first questions—what are the biggest challenges in running an art museum. This question is what drives the movie forward. But Christian’s answer is delivered in a sugared, meaningless way. His answer is a depiction of how people speak today. Besides being naïve and committed to helping the girl who shouts ‘help!’ in the street after this interview, Christian is seen as a hypocritical and mean person. He walks past people who need his help, and when he needs help he asks the same homeless person for help without shame. Despite being the head curator of a museum that has an enormous hype for this art piece called ‘The Square’, in his practice, Christian does not want anything to do with helping out people in need of help. He is indifferent to inequality. Similarly, a scene with rich people attending the opening of the museum’s new art project shows ‘high class’ people disrespecting the chef by not listening to what he has to say and instead, hurrying after the food that was served.
But it seems as though Östlund was trying to victimize the audience instead, not Christian or the rich people. The movie seems to be mocking society’s behavior and manifesting our own behaviors and putting forth questions such as—what would you have done differently? Joe Morgenstern’s review of The Square in Wall Street Journal says, “Some filmmakers strive to make us feel wonderful about life, but Mr. Östlund isn’t one of them. He wants to unsettle us—a fine combination of absurdist satire.” I agree with Morgenstern’s opinion of the director’s intent. He wanted us to watch with embarrassment and awkwardness.
This movie gives the audience an uncomfortable message, one that is delivered through a wayward script and seemingly awkward pauses and angles of filming. A unique aspect of the cinematography was the lack of switch between cameras; many scenes focused on one person for a long period of time, even when another character was speaking or even when there was no action at all. The cinematography was unique in this way. I liked how the scene where Christian and his daughters climb eight or nine flights of stairs was shot from the top and it rotated as the family came close to the camera. It is an unnecessary scene but the director created another great shot.
In the second half of the movie, in a surprising, slow change of progression we discover that Christian is a father. Overall, Christian could have been a more developed character. For me, the director could have made the movie more engaging by giving Christian more depth.
In general, there were no characters that stuck out to me and had me empathize with what they were going through. Apart from the scene with Oleg (played by Terry Notary), a character who acts as a chimpanzee around tables occupied by wealthy people, there were few scenes that grabbed my full attention and emotionally affected me. In this scene, Oleg takes part in an act. Before he enters the room full of people, they are warned that the animal shall not harm you if you stay still. As Oleg enters the room and starts roaming around, there are echoes of voices laughing and whispering. At this point, people are not scared of Oleg, in fact, people are even amused by Oleg poking fun at a man. But it soon turns into a silent, intense room as Oleg acts angry and begins to be physically threatening. I thought that the scene was very well acted. It was one of the most dramatic and thought-provoking scenes in the movie. It asks us how we assess violence in an itinerary that is supposed to be a ‘show’.
A good example of how this movie characterized modern, capitalist behavior, is the making of the YouTube video—it shows how social media becomes an excellent but very misleading marketing tool. It shows that what you post on social media can easily speak volumes and reach out to more audience than expected. What the video is for is revealed towards the end and shows that the usage of YouTube exemplifies today’s capitalist world. The video is a speculation, an experiment on the audience and a strategy to grab their attention on a ‘mundane’ Square. This part of the movie is very well thought out and meaningful. It shows that social media can be exploited in such a deceiving way.
Overall, I felt that the movie was provocative but dull in characters. In retrospect, the movie failed to be dramatic. The second half of the movie makes more sense and puts the pieces of the puzzle together; the audience gets to see what happens to the immigrant boy who demands Christian to apologize to his family and him. We get to see Christian’s change of heart and in his sincerest apology to the boy. Additionally, the second half closes the deal with the museum’s uncanny attempt at posting a controversial video. I wish there were more comedic scenes, more depth in the characters, more expressions and drama. And there were many plot holes, many open-ended questions left for the audience to think about.