Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning The Square is a chilling satire on the pretensions of art and the hypocrisy of Sweden’s comfortable ‘classless’ society.
What is art?by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Hapless museum curator Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang, speaking accentless English) has his wallet stolen while he’s being incorporated into a piece of performance art outside his museum, the X-Royal, in the former royal palace in Stockholm. His attempts to recover it lead to events outside his comfortable experience, bringing him into contact with a dangerous underclass of immigrants that exists all around, yet whose lives are ignored, thanks to the hypocrisy of the better-off.
He’s putting together a new exhibition called The Square – it’s intended as a symbolic safe place that people in society share and where people look out for each other. The film sets out to demonstrate that this is an illusion. Meanwhile Christian is interviewed by American reporter Anne (Elisabeth Moss) who asks him to define when art becomes art – his reply is an obfuscation and an exhibition of piles of rubble is swept up by the cleaners. So far, so Tate Gallery.
Despite his intention not to, eventually Christian and Anne end up in a fraught sex scene, where they argue in a very post-modern way over who will dispose of the condom and its contents.
Swedish tolerance and respect for freedom of speech is challenged by the interventions of a Tourette’s sufferer during an interview on stage in front of an audience and the polite passivity of the middle-class invitees at a formal dinner in the gallery is destroyed by a performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary) running amok as a gorilla, whose audacious behaviour unleashes their primal instincts. Christian’s marketing team come up with a tasteless, controversial online campaign that goes viral and creates a scandal. Christian is really not having a very good few days.
All the performances are judged with the appropriate level of satire. Östlund’s (Force Majeur) world, though basically satiric, is also rooted in what’s believable about the obsessions of contemporary society – not just in Sweden but Europe-wide. When does tolerance of others become simply indifference?
The Square premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or. It is released on 16 March 2018 in the UK.