Cannes winner The Square satirizes society through antic modern-art tale

By Karen Gordon

(Rating: A)

It would be easy to watch The Square and think that it’s just a straight-ahead satire of the modern art world and its rich patrons.

But that would be wrong. 

Writer/director Ruben Östlund’s film, which won the prestigious Palme D’Or at Cannes earlier this year, is like — if you’ll forgive the cliche metaphor — an onion. There are layers and layers to this entertaining and deeply relevant satire.

Claes Bang in The Square

Claes Bang in The Square

The setting is a modern art gallery in Stockholm, where handsome  Christian (Claes Bang) is the chief curator.  He’s about to open a new exhibit called The Square.  It’s basically a conceptual art piece: a mini public  square with a plaque that declares that it is “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” 

On his way to a marketing meeting to strategize the publicity campaign for the new installation, Christian (who just happens to be walking through a public square), is pulled into a drama. Another pedestrian is trying to help protect a woman who is being chased by an abusive partner and conscripts Christian to help.  When things calm down, Christian discovers that he’s been conned.  His phone, wallet and cuff links have been stolen.  And everyone involved in the scam is long gone.

Christian takes the theft, as he seems to take everything, with a mix of calm, bewilderment and slight amusement. 

Back at the office, in between meetings and chatting up the museum’s patrons and donors, he  regales his staff with the story of the theft. One of his employees, gets on the computer and tracks the phone down via its locator app. The employee proposes that they write a stern note demanding the return of the items - notes they’ll drop into all the mailboxes in the building hoping to convince the thieves to return the stolen goods. Christian agrees and they go off together to do the deed. 

And while Christian deals with the theft, the letter campaign and the fall out from that, he has a series of random encounters. There's an odd incident with a super-cranky Roma woman in a 7-11. At work, an outside marketing team of millennials tells him that  the feel-good nature of “The Square” makes its message too boring to be newsworthy (they propose going off to invent something that could go viral). And on the social front: Christian rocks out at a massive party and, in spite of himself,  goes home with an American reporter, (Elisabeth Moss), whose roommate is a chimp. Yes, a chimp.

Cap it off with a gala dinner where - in room full of men in tuxedos and women in formal gowns - a performance piece meant to delight, goes out of wildly out of control. 

So what’s it all about, Alfie?

The Square is  actually a real thing. It’s an art piece that that Ostlund and a creative partner came up with, which is on display at galleries in Sweden and Norway. It's even become part of a movement.  So this is a world he knows well.  But at the same time, the world of modern art is a puzzle to a lot of people, who find it absurd and/or pretentious.  

But really, modern artists are just making comments about the state of things. They reflect our world back to us in visual metaphors. And if that sounds pretentious, consider that, at their base level, that’s what movies and television do.  We’re just more familiar with them, and they’re mostly made to be easily digested.  

So setting The Square in the modern art world is almost a joke within a joke.  And for sure, he has fun with it in this movie.  But that’s not where Ostlund is really pointing us. As in his previous film Force Majeure, Ostlund has identified malaises in modern life. And has layered questions about them in the film, by the way ordinary situations turn absurd for Christian.

As a filmmaker Ostlund’s a steady hand with his own vision.  HIs genius is his light touch and the way he has of building a story that feels complete on the surface. Ie: it is possible to just see this as a satire about modern art, but the more you think about the film, the more questions it raises.  

His movies are modern, in the way of Woody Allen’s most vital films of the 70’s and early 80’s were for their time.

Like those movies, Ostlund’s are funny intelligent, highly entertaining and slightly uncomfortable. He’ s not afraid to make a scene, like the performance piece gone mad, go longer than feels natural. Or to give us a story line with some very odd turns that vex our hero, and then never resolve.  

The Square, with its many layers , is looking straight into the heart of western culture.  And in its easy going way asking questions that are worth contemplating. 

The Square. Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. Starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss, Dominic West. Starts Friday, Nov. 3 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox and Canada Square Theatre.