“The Square is a sanctuary, a zone of trust and care”.
There is no better subject for the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund than that of the human mind, with the filmmaker consistently probing into the careful layers of the human psyche that are constantly manipulated by the construct of social expectation.
Consistently focusing on fragile, lost characters who find themselves like a deer in the headlights as the result of one small act, the cinema of Östlund squirms with 21st-century awkwardness. Whilst this awkwardness can come from the result of one’s own pride, such as in the protagonist of 2014s Force Majeure who refuses to acknowledge his failures as a father, 2011s Play also demonstrated how these emotions can be manipulated by others, forcing you to act out of character.
“All my films are about people trying to avoid losing face,” Östlund told The Guardian back in 2018, with no film demonstrating this better than his Palme d’Or winning satire of the art world, The Square. Telling the story of a fashionable chief art curator of the Stockholm museum, Östlund’s protagonist (Claes Bang)is a pretentious figure, lost somewhere between being a bastion of artistic taste and being an aspirational citizen of contemporary life outside of the museum’s four walls.
Tasked with riding the line of good and bad taste, it is the job of Bang’s Christian to maintain the balance of provocative intrigue and acceptable classical art, as the pretentious spectacle of contemporary art meets the ornate landscape paintings of yesteryear. Forced into taking more risks, Christian’s museum is filled with several surprises, including the titular ‘Square’, whose plaque reads, “a sanctuary, a zone of trust and care”.
Despite anyone and anything able to inhabit this space, the Square has been constructed as an art exhibition and a performance, wherein we trust the evidence of ‘art’. Though, as Östlund frequently asks throughout the film, among several other pressing questions, what is the line between art and fraudulence? Similarly, what is the line between authenticity and fiction? What can we believe? Who do we trust?
Such polarising questions make Östlund’s film such a joy to watch, illustrated at the moment when an artist, pulling off a staggering impression of a gorilla, begins to bound across a packed dining hall, leaping on top of the tables on all fours. The guests save face believing it is all part of the performance, and it is or is it? The lines are blurred when the dedicated performer taunts a woman and drags her to the floor, a moment that undoubtedly goes too far, despite the majority of the room waiting till the very last minute to do something about it.
Not wanting to be the one to ‘break the performance’, each of the diners is complicit in their middle-class wish for assimilation, they don’t want to ruin the ‘art’. They don’t want to rock the boat.
As a satire of the modern art world, there is certainly some truth to the words of Östlund, with the concurrent Cannes Film Festival consistently coming across this same question of the line between art and nonsense. Authenticity and fiction. Constantly changing the goalposts for what is and what isn’t considered acceptable. In fact, cinema, in general, has always struggled with this.
Whilst some booed at Gaspar Noé’s Palme d’Or nominee, Irréversible, in 2002, a film that features a graphic and extended rape scene, others likely sat and stroked their chins at the ‘masterpiece’ before them. Is it a masterpiece or is it indeed provocatively malicious filmmaking, the 250 people that walked out and the 20 people who required oxygen would say the latter.
Walking into the cinema, or an art gallery, or indeed, any other artistic space is to engage in a contract of trust with the artist themselves. We trust that the safe boundaries of good taste will not be crossed, because if they are there’s no knowing what’s authentic, what’s acceptable or what’s permissible to enjoy.