Last year when I was putting together my list for the Best of 2017, I lamented that my roommate’s phone dying prevented us from seeing The Square during its all-too-brief run in Austin. While searching for something to watch this past weekend, we discovered that it’s finally found its way to Hulu, and we were overjoyed! Although there was some hemming and hawing about its 151 minute run time (especially as we had watched the 141 minute Bad Times at the El Royale earlier that same day), this was definitely worth the wait.
Christian (Claes Bang) is the divorced curator of the X-Royal modern art museum in Stockholm, which hosts such exhibits as a room full of identical piles of gravel, stacks of commonplace objects, an exhibit in which people must declare through the push of a button whether they trust other people or not (we do not see what happens if you admit you don’t, but entrants who go through the “I trust others” door must leave their phones and wallets in an open area), and the newest exhibit, Lola Arias’s titular “The Square.” Arias’s piece consists of a lighted square, four meters on each side, that is “a sanctuary of trust and caring” and within which “we all share equal rights and obligations.” After he is pickpocketed and loses his phone and wallet (and perhaps his cufflinks) as part of a con by a few people in a public space, Christian’s barely-together life falls apart completely. He sleeps with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a slightly deranged American art journalist who he previously met professionally and runs into again later at a party, and their next interaction goes . . . poorly. His plan to retrieve his stolen belongings, encouraged by his assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø), involves tracking his GPS to an apartment building and stuffing all of the mailboxes in the complex with a threatening note. He succeeds, but not without affecting an innocent boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents assume the letter is about their son and punish him severely; the boy then demands Christian apologize and clarify the situation, or he will “make chaos” for the curator. His inattentiveness to the work of two young PR men (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder) to increase the public’s interest in “The Square” results in their creation of a viral marketing attempt that manages to upset just about every person in Sweden; his daughters are constantly fighting; and to top it all off, one of the cleaners manages to vacuum up part of the gravel pile exhibit, meaning that the piles are no longer identical.
There’s a lot going on in this film, which functions more as a series of vignettes than as a complete whole, but it manages to be stronger than merely the sum of its parts, and even with two and a half hours of screen time, there are still answers left unexplored – for instance, if you’re hoping for an explanation of the bonobo that appears in the trailer, you’re still going to be unclear by the time that the credits roll (per the IMDb trivia page, director Ruben Östlund said in Cannes, “Anything can happen in a movie when suddenly a monkey appears in an apartment. Everything should have a monkey in it.”). In the U.S., when a film or TV show mocks the world of modern art, it’s usually mean-spirited and lacking in humor or depth, focusing on the apparent ridiculousness of the artistic sphere and their arch removal from the earthy, grounded nature of “normal” folk (see: any episode of King of the Hill in which Bobby becomes temporarily obsessed with anything other than clowning). In The Square, the mockery is still present, but less abrasively, as epitomized in the early, tone-setting scene in which Christian asks Anne if putting her purse in the museum would make it art. She waits for him to continue from what appears to be a rhetorical question, until the silence between them grows deafening.
Instead, The Square mocks not the artifice of haute culture and instead revels in needling the shallowness of artistic expression when self-important artists attempt to make broad social commentary while lacking any real depth of insight. In the introduction of the concept of “The Square” to the museum’s wealthy patrons, Christian’s assistant thanks two donors for their contribution of fifty million kroner (about 5.85 million USD); following this, Christian launches into a practiced speech before a minor interruption offers him the opportunity to make an “impromptu” request to go off-script and begin again, a specific strategy to appear more personable and relatable, and which we have already seen him rehearse in the previous scene. “Lola Arias compares ‘The Square’ to a pedestrian crossing,” he says. “In a pedestrian crossing, drivers are to look out for pedestrians. In a similar way, there is a contract implied by ‘The Square,’ to look out for each other. We help each other. If you enter this space and ask for help, anyone passing by is obligated to help you. ‘I’m hungry. Can you help me with a meal?'” This comes after several scenes in which Christian himself expresses reticence to leave his Tesla while visiting a poor neighborhood (you can tell because the building he enters has flickering lights in the hallway on every single floor), and in which requests from those experiencing homelessness are ignored by the characters we have been following. Immediately after this monologue, Christian yields the floor to the museum’s chef, who attempts to describe the meal that has been prepared for the patrons in attendance but has to shout at them in order to finish describing the menu as the horde ignores his description as they herd themselves to the dining room; this contrasts with Christian’s interaction with a homeless woman who asks specifically that he buy her a sandwich with no onions. The rich, despite being financially able to meet all of their needs until the end of their lives, are oblivious to the food they plan to shovel into their mouths; the poor, for whom every meal could be the last one for a while, have sincere desires that they may find difficult to explicate, and any desires that are specific are met with derision. Christian buys the sandwich, but throws it at the woman and says that she can pick out the onions herself, treating her with socially and economically enforced disdain, despite his pretensions toward equality that he espouses in the art that he curates. This motif repeats itself throughout the film: Christian the curator embraces the importance of charitable humanity and the need to support the poor and the weak; Christian the person ignores the plight of people around him, writes a threatening letter to an entire apartment complex with reckless abandon, refuses to apologize to a child for the havoc in the boy’s personal life for which he is directly responsible, and when he does try to make things right, it’s both too little and too late.
European art films also tend to highlight the beauty of centuries-old architecture and frame their outdoor sequences in such a way that captures their beauty, both that which is pristine and that which is distressed in an attractively antique way. The Square is instead comprised of harsh, gray, buildings that seem born out of the era of architectural brutalism. The museum itself consists of the former palace of the Swedish monarchy, but more often than not we see 711 convenience stores tucked away under concrete blocks or the aforementioned apartment building with its endlessly flickering lights. We see the sumptuous world of the rich more rarely, like in the dinner scene featuring Oleg’s performance (which gets out of hand) or in Christian’s apartment, which is haunted by the shouting of the boy he has wronged and his own screaming following a tantrum at his daughters. It’s no surprise that, near the film’s climax, Christian finds himself digging through the trash for something that he desperately needs, and that this is the moment where he finally realizes that he has responsibilities to make reparations to the people he has harmed.
This all makes the film appear more somber than it really is. It is at turns deeply discomfiting, hilarious, and charming. And now that it’s on Hulu, you can check it out. Please do.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond