Square, The–Highlight of 2017 Cannes Competition

The Cannes Film Festival is known for promoting and elevating its favorite directors from one series to another. Artistic director Thierry Fremaux made a good choice in placing The Square, a subtle satire about art and life, from Swedish director Ruben Östlund, in competition, particularly in a year in which the main lineup is not strong.

Östlund more than delivers on the promise that he showed in his previous feature, Force Majeure, which had premiered in Cannes in 2014 in the Certain Regard series.

Consistently provocative in ideas, if not always successful in changing its tone, The Square is a darkly humorous dramedy centering on a handsome, middle age curator named Christian (well played by Claes Bang). In the course of the film, which runs two and half hours, the hero goes through a series of adventures and misadventures, some planned, others unexpected, that forces him to become more humble, more grounded, and more responsible in his personal and professional life.

As written by Östlund, The Square is a morality tale of the comeuppance of an initially proud, elegant, self-assured man who is forced to realize that art has real impact on people lives, bearing consequences that are both positive and negative. The very notions of what’s art and what’s the best strategy to promote it, are put to test in such a subtle way that it makes us viewers think of how we relate to aesthetic experiences.

Most of the tale takes place at the X-Royal Museum, where Christian and his supporting team work.  Wearing suits and scarves, and sorting red-framed spectacles, he projects the image of a posh man, carrying himself with a regal, superior air. Is it just an exterior posturing? Or does he really care about the artists he exhibits.

He seems particularly excited by his new show, an installation called “The Square” (thus the title) which consists of a simple gray square drawn on the floor. The art work propagates humanistic democratic, as Christian says time and again, “It’s a sanctuary of trust and caring, within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

At first, we believe in his philosophy at face value; after all, we live in a horrible, unjust and dangerous world and the new piece of art is meant to make us feel safer and better about ourselves.

This axiom is immediately challenged, when Christian becomes a victim of robbery—his wallet and cel phone are stolen, ironically, when he is trying to help a woman screaming for help in the big square outside the museum.

As writer, Östlund includes other elements of Christian’s life—though a career man who lives for his work, he is a divorced father caring about his two young daughters, who nevertheless feel neglected and abandoned in his company.

As expected, Christian is a ladies man who thinks he can seduce any woman. In one of the film’s most hilarious and poignant moments, he encounters an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss), and the two end up in bed.  Taking his time to wear a condom, while she is eagerly waiting, they make love, but then engage in an argument over who is in control and who should have the used condom; Christian is paranoid that she might use it to get pregnant.  In a later scene, she too demands that he takes responsibility: “You were inside me, don’t you think you owe me something?”

The Square walks a fine line in it attitude toward postmodern art—the joys and provocations it provides, but also the social responsibilities of artists.  One of the museum’s rooms is filled with neat and symmetrical piles of dirt, which bewilders those visitors searching for “meaningful art.”

Christian is not a bad guy; he is just a self-centered career man, enraptured and obsessed with his own work (and ego), who must face a series of predicaments. The film’s last reel may be too moralistic and preachy, forcing Christian to learn some life lessons, namely, that what he admires in art–“The Square”–is much harder, if not impossible, to replicate in real life.

As he showed in Force Majeure, Östlund is an expert of deconstructing personalities to their very essence.  He loves puncturing men’s exterior demeanor–often polite and sometimes pompous–revealing through the subtle portraiture of Christian our own fragile, insecure and flawed facets.