The standout scene in Ruben Östlund’s latest satire The Square involves a performance artist (Terry Notary) mimicking an ape at a black-tie fundraiser. The guests are amused at first as the muscular figure beats his chest and stares down those in his path. The assertion of dominance quickly descends down a dark path as the man becomes increasingly belligerent and abusive. However, no matter how far he pushes the limits, the guests simply look down at their laps in fear.
Even as the piercing screams for help from a fellow guest cuts through the tense and silent air, few people are willing to budge. It is an excruciatingly uncomfortable moment for both the guests and the audience, but it hits Östlund’s point home.
No matter how decadent the life of some may be, money and power cannot hide the weak and callous self-preserving nature that resides within many.
Taking a scathing look at the pretensions of the modern-day art world, Östlund’s Palme D’Or winning film is a delight from beginning to end. While not quite as strong as Force Majeure, the film does run out of steam after the aforementioned centerpiece moment, Square once again shows why Östlund is the master of socially awkward dramedies.
The film centers around Christian (Claes Bang), a father and art museum curator whose self-centered ways leads to a series of awkward situations. The most damaging of which, from a career standpoint, involves the museums latest installation piece entitle The Square. Too preoccupied with getting back his stolen cellphone, Christian inadvertently greenlights a controversial advertising campaign for the exhibit that puts his career in jeopardy. Along with navigating the increasing fallouts from both the phone and museum debacles, the egotistical curator also crosses paths with a persistent reporter, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), and an equally pretentious artist named Julian (Dominic West).
As with all of Östlund’s works, the social commentary is both cutting and layered. He not only takes pointed jabs at the ways the wealthy capitalize off the poor, but also questions what actually can be considered art nowadays? There are several sight gags regarding the latter as he shows how thin the line is in determining whether a pile of dirt is someone’s artistic vision or just a pile of dirt.
Forcing the audience to reflect on the nature of art, and the ways art is often used as tool for philanthropic ventures, Östlund shows that we are no better than the individuals in the film. While we are quick to throw money at causes, and speak out against things on social media, when it comes to confronting these issues up close, we often choose to look away.