In His Natural Habitat
By Elbert Ventura
Dir. Ruben Östlund, Sweden, Magnolia Pictures
The last time we saw Swedish director Ruben Östlund, he was in the middle of a meltdown. Before winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this spring for The Square, Östlund’s biggest news-making moment came in January 2015 with a YouTube video that went viral: the live reaction shot of Östlund and producer Erik Hemmendorff as they watched the announcement of the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film. Their film Force Majeure was expected to be one of the five—but it didn’t make the cut. What happened next spawned a thousand tweets: the two hug, curse, scream—then Östlund, moving offscreen, proceeds to fall apart. With the webcam still recording, we hear Hemmendorff implore Östlund to calm down, breathe, keep his clothes on. Then, a primal cry from the disconsolate director—and, scene.
That six-minute video came to mind while I was watching The Square. Set in the luxe realm of contemporary art, the film traffics in the spectacle of public humiliation, the vagaries of virality, and the childlike outbursts of grown men. There is also something of a nervous breakdown at its center, not necessarily by its protagonist but by the norms and institutions that sustain him. A lacerating critique of liberal cosmopolitanism, Östlund’s film is at once an art-house provocation of supreme calculation and a guttural sob for an unhappy West.
The square of the title is a new installation at a modern art museum in Stockholm. In the movie’s opening frames, we see workmen construct the piece, cutting a square into the cobblestone courtyard and filling the indentation with a lit-up filament. (This comes after the disastrous dismantling of the previous installation, a bombastic equestrian statue that’s dropped by a crane while the crew looks on impassively—a deadpan vignette worthy of Roy Andersson, Östlund’s idol.) A plaque, shined to a polish, reads: “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The manifesto all but tees up the rebuke to come.
The embodiment of modernity’s crisis is Christian (veteran Danish actor Claes Bang), the museum’s director. Natty and erudite, progressive and seemingly pithless, he evokes a 21st-century type—the upscale citizen of the borderless world. Early on, we see him in the restroom practicing a speech he is set to give to donors. Just a few lines into it, he stops reading from notes and tells the imaginary audience that he’d prefer to speak from the heart, and (glasses off now) goes on to rehearse an “extemporaneous” talk. That glimpse of calculated spontaneity gets at the disjunction between the cerebral and the instinctive that the movie explores.
Self-consciously planting a flag in the terrain of European art cinema, the movie is unabashedly about The Way We Live Now. The utopian aspirations of “The Square” contrast with the lived reality outside the museum walls. Striding across a different square on the way to work, Christian and his fellow commuters ignore the homeless around them. A street canvasser repeats a plaintive question, “Do you want to save a human life today?” that no one stops to answer. But some pleas you can’t ignore: a woman screaming “Help!” runs through the public space and makes a beeline for Christian. Teaming up with a fellow bystander, Christian faces off against the man chasing after her—and forces him to beat a retreat. Adrenalized by the unexpected rush of manly intervention, Christian and the other Samaritan whoop and celebrate their heroism. It’s not until he’s almost to his office that Christian realizes he’s been pickpocketed—smartphone, wallet, maybe even his cufflinks, all gone.
Christian’s hunt for his stolen property propels the movie’s moral inquiry. Egged on by an underling, he tracks down the smartphone via GPS and devises an unusual plan—to drop a note through every mail slot in the apartment building where his phone appears to be, demanding that the thief return the lifted items to a nearby 7-11 where he can pick them up. The building is in a bad part of town, the residents mainly immigrants and the lower class. Why not go to the police? Christian doesn’t say, but his plan has the seeming benefit of satisfying a need that can only be filled outside the sterile machinations of the law. (Playing on the car stereo on the drive to the projects is the band Justice, a detail that’s a tad too on the button.) The downside is that the indiscriminate mailing claims collateral damage: it gets an immigrant boy in trouble with his parents, who think the note was directed at him. The boy in turn tracks Christian down and insists on an apology—a demand that’s funny at first coming from a mouthy kid, but that becomes a haunting refrain by film’s end.
Nagging claims to the liberal conscience recur in Östlund’s film. The poor are seemingly ubiquitous but hardly acknowledged; unseen persons call for help. There is always someone or something offscreen clamoring for attention or threatening to intrude upon the frame. Even the art can be hectoring. During a conversation between Christian and a reporter (Elizabeth Moss) at the museum, the rhythmic cacophony from a nearby exhibit seems the aural representation of Christian’s addled mind. In another room, the video of a performance artist acting like an ape looms in the background as Christian loses himself in thought in the foreground.
The Square takes place in a specific Swedish context, but it speaks to the broader condition of the modern West. It is a place where the civil religion of liberalism—tolerant, pluralistic, polite—is triumphant. A man brings his infant to an important work meeting with no one batting an eye; a white boss and a minority underling collaborate happily (at first). But is this Scandinavian progressivism a pinnacle or a dead end? A party celebrating the opening of the installation devolves into a bacchanal in an abandoned palace—echoes of La Dolce vita and other “sick-soul-of-Europe” parties. What good is a society purportedly built on Enlightenment principles when the shiny, happy surfaces of the urban upscale are barely disturbed by the suffering outside?
Little detonations pierce those placid spaces throughout the film. At a museum gala, the chef solemnly rattles off the evening repast—then curses out the crowd for scurrying off to beat the line without waiting for him to finish. A Q&A with an artist is interrupted repeatedly by the Tourettic outbursts of an audience member. These eruptions don’t just test the decorum of cosmopolitans—they hint at energies that civilization has been suppressing. Östlund takes aim at the smugness of 21st-century man, unaware (or unwilling to recognize) that we’re still in the jungle, and that civilization is just the scrim we put over it to flatter ourselves. Lest we miss the point, Elizabeth Moss’s character even sports a pet chimp to remind us (that, too, is a tad on the button).
No scene better encapsulates this idea than the movie’s major set piece, a black-tie gala in which the main event is a bit of performance art: a live appearance by the ape-aping artist (Terry Notary, in a remarkable one-scene turn) at the soiree. “Welcome to the jungle,” a recording intones, and the assembled guests ooh and ahh at the performer, playing the primate with Method precision, hopping from one table to another in a bit of interactive dinner theater. But the sanitized savagery goes off the rails. The ape chases off an artist (Dominic West) addled by his hounding, and then attempts to sexually assault a female guest. Told by the emcee to not make eye contact with the fearsome beast, the party-goers keep their heads down, frozen in place by fear and uncertainty, until a few guests finally snap and a tuxedoed lynch mob equal to the ape’s savagery takes matters into its own hands.
That beatdown feels like the orgiastic release of a society in which passivity has become codified as a principle. Such inaction is tied up with an emotion that has come to define the modern liberal: guilt. Christian and his ilk are good European progressives who think and feel the right things. Doing is a different matter. In The Square, liberalism and modernity have left the West desiccated, paralyzed. The hard work of politics has been outsourced to the “Like” button. One of the film’s subplots involves the creation of a social-media campaign for “The Square”; the slick PR consultants mouth the idioms of the viral economy, and the museum officials nod along. (“Ice bucket challenge!” chirps one.) Slacktivism is an easy target, but The Square goes deeper. Where convenience trumps conviction, guilt becomes a substitute for action. His conscience racked by his treatment of the immigrant boy, Christian turns his iPhone on himself and records a message for him. But even that gesture feels hollow—it’s more a narcissist’s unburdening than a true act of penance and fellow feeling.
A father of two girls whose existence isn’t even acknowledged until deep into the film—another symptom of a rudderless society—Christian does find his way to an epiphany. At a cheerleading competition where his daughters are performing, a coach tries to cheer up the losing team backstage. “Feeling guilty isn’t going to help anyone,” he tells the team. But the camera stays on Christian when the line is uttered. The film closes with a scene of partial humiliation and true humility: Christian, driving home from the competition, decides to make a detour to the building where he dropped the notes. He never heard back from the boy after his filmed apology, and so he goes door to door, asking where the boy lives, and explaining to the puzzled residents why he’s there. He never does find the kid—a neighbor says his family moved away. But there’s a modicum of redemption here, if only in those final images, of the girls in the backseat, staring at the back of their father’s head, and wondering about the act they just witnessed.
If the above depiction feels forbidding, it isn’t meant to be. For among its many virtues, The Square is a funny movie. The video that the viral gurus create, featuring a homeless girl and a ticking clock, offers one of the biggest laughs of the year. And Östlund is a master of the buzzkill, undercutting liberal piety and masculine vanity with relish (though nothing is as cringey-funny as the scene in Force Majeure where the protagonist is told by a woman that her friend thinks he’s cute—only to have the compliment taken back minutes later). A scene in which a homeless woman asks Christian to buy her a chicken ciabatta sandwich— “No onions!” —could have been in Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Perhaps it’s his weakness for the prank and the put-on that complicates my response to The Square. When Östlund’s YouTube breakdown went viral, he played coy about whether it was real or an act. It seems plausible that it was a bit of both—a moment of real anguish filtered through a provocateur’s instincts and played up for viral impact (the conscious act of recording and uploading should tell us something). The Square gives off the same effect, an attempt to bare one’s—and a society’s—soul made by an exacting, cerebral auteur. In a film that can be cool to the touch, the kumbaya inscription that serves as its epigraph turns out to be an authentic appeal—indeed, the installation in the film is based on one that Östlund and a producer co-created for a museum in Värnamo in 2014. There is a tension here between that earnestness and Östlund’s rigorous, calculating mind that can be confounding—and, given the film’s subject, may in the end be poignant.