Review: The Square (Cambridge Film Festival)

Image credit: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing via YouTube

Why do we go to the cinema? To feel uncomfortable, awkward and embarrassed may not be your immediate response, but that is exactly what Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund sets out to do to his audience. It is hard to think of another director who sees not criticism but a gold standard in the phrase ‘hard to watch’.  

Östlund’s previous effort, Force Majeure, was a masterpiece in making viewers shift uneasily in their seats; The Square essentially attempts to widen the scope of this approach. Instead of a ski resort, the setting is a Stockholm modern art museum, and rather than concentrating on a single family the focus turns to broader social issues – for instance, the acceptability of composing a threatening letter in Comic Sans. 

In some ways The Square suffers from this larger scale, becoming – particularly in the second half – sprawling and incoherent compared to the tight-knit, claustrophobic tensions of its predecessor. But then again, maybe this is all part of the plan: disjointed scenes and an overlong 142-minute running time certainly add to the audience’s discomfort.  

Indeed, intentionally or not, watching this film often mirrored my experience of visiting a contemporary art gallery – it is at times baffling, it never seems to end, and it can be hard to tell what, if anything, is supposed to be taken seriously.   

Nevertheless, the narrative remains somewhat anchored by its central character, a progressive museum curator – complete with cherry-tinted glasses – played with a hilarious lack of self-awareness by Danish actor Claes Bang. In exposing the hollowness of his high-minded liberal principles, the film ruthlessly satirises the pretensions of middle class high culture.  

The irony of this cannot have escaped its creators: not only will most of the audience fall into the ‘cultured’ category, the film itself is ultimately a work of high art not unlike the exhibits it mocks – it won the Palme d’Or, after all.   

A difficult question arises from these observations, concerning how such a film can be analysed. In recognising the use of the squares motif to represent ethical quandaries, or the symbolic significance of choosing the name ‘Christian’ for Bang’s morally challenged character, are we really identifying something meaningful?  

Perhaps we are instead engaging in the very pretentious nonsense The Square derides, exemplified in the film by an art installation consisting solely of piles of ash alongside a neon sign reading ‘YOU HAVE NOTHING’.  

Such a paradox is unsurprising in a film built on contradictions. Östlund constantly juxtaposes the supposedly civilised sophistication of the artistic world with moments of bizarre crudity – the random arrival of a monkey during an hysterically unsexy sex scene springs to mind.  

As one might hope from a comedy, there are some exceptionally funny moments: a late set-piece involving a bare-chested man impersonating an ape may well be the most outrageously uncomfortable dinner scene in cinematic history. Not all hit their mark, though – a sequence featuring a man with Tourette’s syndrome interrupting an interview feels like a rather heavy-handed swipe at political correctness.    

Ultimately, however, even if the structure and inconsistency of The Square deny it the title of a great film, it can at the very least be called a series of great scenes. Like modern art and modern life, it often seems weird and illogical, but the key difference between The Square and the people it satirises is that the former is totally aware of, and glories in, its own absurdity.  

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