Cannes review: The Square (2017)

Ruben Östlund’s The Square is a chilly satire on the pretensions of art and the hypocrisy of Sweden’s comfortable ‘classless’ society.

What is art?

by Alexa Dalby

The Square

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Hapless museum curator Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang, speaking accentless colloquial 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 they end up in a fraught sex scene, arguing in a very modernist way over who will dispose of the condom. Swedish tolerance and respect for freedom of speech is challenged by the interventions of a Tourette’s sufferer during an interview on stage 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? Though slightly overlong, The Square is well worth seeing when it finally gets its release.

The Square won the Palme d’Or at the 70th Cannes Film Festival 2017.

The Square is now showing at the 70th Cannes Film Festival.

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