Attempting to discuss writer-director Ruben Östlund’s The Square in the arts and culture pages borders dangerously close on self-parody. The film, winner of the Palme d’Or at the most recent Cannes Film Festival, is a darkly comedic satire of the art establishment.
It’s a work so sharp in its critique of the world of museums’ artless pretension that any attempt to dissect it runs the risk of becoming just as hollow.
Claes Bang stars as Christian, the curator of a major Swedish art museum. The film follows his misadventures surrounding the opening of a new installation called “The Square.” The exhibit explores predicaments of the social contract. How can we entrust our individual well-being to a society of strangers? It’s a bad omen when, on his way to announce the new installation, con artists steal Christian’s cellphone.
To publicize “The Square,” the museum hires a marketing team of two young bros. Their grasp of the exhibit is flimsy, but irrelevant. Their sole desire is to go viral. Using social media algorithms, they craft an ad guaranteed to spark online outrage: a homeless child spontaneously combusting while holding a kitten.
Watching the machinations of the mega-museum, one can’t help but notice how little any of this actually has to do with art.
There are ostensibly three artist characters in the film. The most important one, the artist who created “The Square,” never appears. She never interacts with anyone at the museum, and there’s no indication that she’s ever spoken to any of them, yet the chaos of the film swirls around her work. The second artist spends a lot of time talking about art at gallery functions, but never seems to actually make any art.
The third artist, played by Terry Notary, enacts a performance piece for a donor’s gala. In the film’s centrepiece scene, he imitates a gorilla in a black-tie ballroom, bare chested. It initially seems like a metaphor for the film’s message: art is a wild animal, out of place in the buttoned-down establishment.
That is, until the artist takes the performance too far. The scene plays out as a brilliant and tense slow burn, oscillating from humour to unease to outright disgust, until the artist goes from being a symbol to a very real, very bad guy. The artists are just as much objects of Östlund’s scorn as the curators, the publicists and the art establishment itself.
Throughout the film, characters are always asking that old question: does putting something in a gallery make it art? But The Square raises more provocative questions.
The exploding child video is crass nonsense, but is it really any different than what’s in the gallery? Doesn’t Christian being pickpocketed say more about the social contract than the exhibit? How can a museum claim to be interrogating society at large when its staff and patrons seem only to be society’s most privileged?
Sadly wasted in all this is the consistently great Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) as Christian’s office fling. She gives a solid performance in a thankless role that’s beneath her talents and this film.