The Square is the new film directed by Ruben Östlund that surprised audiences and critics when it won the 2017 Palme d’Or. The film is mostly in its native Swedish, but large chunks are spoken in English given the use of several American actors, most notably Elizabeth Moss. The protagonist of the film is Christian, the curator of a Swedish art museum, played by Claes Bang.
The film spends most of its time satirizing both art and celebrity culture. It relentlessly mocks the arrogant and often pretentious attitudes of characters in the art world, particularly those with notoriety. The Square also spends a substantial amount of time entertaining the issue of homelessness in Europe, tying these two major themes together by addressing the feigned interest of the wealthy toward the less fortunate who occupy the same space that they do. The film constantly plays with the dichotomy between people scraping and clawing just to survive and the wealthy elites obsessing over abstract art. Perhaps Östlund even laughs at his own audience as he pokes fun at high art culture. Certainly it’s a bit amusing that members of the art community at the Cannes Film Festival selected a film for its top prize that is arguably mocking their behavior.
The pairing of these themes works well in terms of allowing for hilarious situations. Indeed, individual scenes throughout The Square are excellently constructed dark and comedic commentary. The ape man scene starring Terry Notary, which has been partially featured in most of The Square’s marketing, is both deeply disturbing and strangely funny. Christian’s relationship with Moss’ Anne provides both a great view into his self-centered psyche and a deep well of comic relief.
All of that said, I did find the film to be somewhat uneven. While these individual scenes were spectacular, others dragged on or didn’t seem to fit into the film’s message in any specific way. About a half hour from the end of the film, Christian has a long and unnecessary monologue, explaining the message that Östlund had already loudly sent on multiple occasions about homelessness in Europe. While The Square offers effective social commentary and clever satire, it’s easy for any viewer to see where a lot of fat could’ve been trimmed from the film to keep it under its extremely cumbersome two and a half hour run time.
This isn’t to say that I was bored by The Square. Simply that I might’ve more clearly seen to the cohesive central message if not for the significant excess. Östlund often dwells on plot threads that feel like they should be minor. Overall, this failure to make tough decisions in the editing room hurts the impact the film has. In the days following my screening of the film, I felt the central message becoming more and more muddled and I felt Östlund’s arguments becoming more unclear. The film is funny and in certain moments it is very powerful. However, when it comes to The Square, the whole is less than the sum of its parts.