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Arts & Life

'The Square' Is Moral, Without Being Moralistic

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Magnolia Pictures
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The Square, by the Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund, opens as Christian (Claes Bang) the chief curator of a Swedish museum, is about to be interviewed. He sits against a blank white wall and answers a couple of questions with convoluted art-speak jargon. The inquiring journalist (American actor Elisabeth Moss) is either buffaloed by the tortured language, or satisfied with it, but the gobbledygook sets the movie off on its scornful, satiric way. The Square mounts a full-out attack on the way many of us live.

The title The Square refers to a new artwork about to be unveiled at the museum. It’s a small square set in the ground with an inscription that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” That bit of wishful thinking doesn’t stand a chance in this hypocritical world. A lone demonstrator on the street calls out the question, “Do you want to save human life?” No one responds.

The Square is one cynical movie. Christian speaks to an audience of bored donors, who abandon him the moment a dinner is ready. They rush to the buffet tables like a parody of the homeless and hungry they claim to protect. The film is littered with actual homeless people, begging in vain.

The installation that gets attention and reverence from the staff is a room filled with cone-shaped piles of gravel. Occasional curious museum visitors peer at it from around a corner, as if it’s contagious; no one walks around the piles or enters the room, except the janitors who accidentally vacuum up some of the gravel – so that Christian and his staff must rebuild. An artist onstage for a discussion at the museum asks if simply being on display in a museum makes something art. It’s a real question, until you think about those gravel cones, which makes finding an answer easier.

The Square lulls the audience because it’s funny for a while – until it grows progressively tougher, more cynical and more uncomfortable. Christian is a master of evasion and doublespeak; you squirm as he dances around direct questions about his sex life from the journalist with whom he spent a night.

Toward the end of the film, the museum puts on an event for donors that strips away the pretenses and leaves the audience with mouths agape. A couple of hundred of the well-heeled sit at the usual round tables, awaiting an entertainment. An unseen narrator talks about the jungle; jungle sounds are broadcast into the hall. A man stripped to the waist wears arm extensions so that he can jump around ape-like on both hands and feet. He hops from table to table and starts to pick on individual people. The intimidated guests sit with their heads bowed, not watching, as if they were in the middle of a bank robbery or a terrorist attack. No one moves to object or disrupt the aggressive humiliations from this man, until the men finally turn into a cowardly mob.

The Square begins as a riff on the silliness of the art world – it’s sharply irreverent. By the end, the film mounts a devastating attack on the fundamental postures of the society of those who have more than enough. It mocks charities, culture, the notions of publicity and raising money for the arts, contemporary theories of art that obliterate all common sense, and it ridicules the absurdities of sex. The comparisons with the ape world grow stronger, until you wonder who is who and what is what. The picture takes on notions of responsibility, as well as the fundamental question of how we communicate with each other – and how in actuality we fail to communicate with others because dress, customs and manners are designed to make sure we remain in isolation and self-delusion. The Square is moral without being moralistic. It deserved that award at Cannes.  

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