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The Square: Life and art fuse in Ruben Östlund's satirical comedy

The Square

“Anything can happen in a movie when suddenly a monkey appears…Everything should have a monkey in it.” – Ruben Östlund

In The Square, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund satirises subject matter that is all too easy to mock: the more extreme forms of modern art – but he doesn’t stop there. Flamboyant, pretentious works of conceptual art, and the heavy-handed moral messages they sometimes try to express, make up the background of the entire movie, and are the main source of humour, ranging from quiet one-liners to elaborate parody. The story goes beyond a simple lampoon of the art world, however, and cleverly uses the works of art to introduce and parallel the personal and social problems of the film’s characters.

Christian Nielsen (Claes Bang) is the knowledgeable and well-respected curator of a major modern art museum in Stockholm. As the film begins he is promoting the museum’s upcoming exhibits, accepting interviews from the press and trying to drum up enthusiasm; as always, money is a concern, and public interest is vital to the museum’s continued success. Nielsen does bring up some of the apparently illogical aspects of modern art, and the increasingly hard to answer question of what qualifies as art, but in a cold and formal way. He is a man who lives in his head, and his love of art is purely academic, not emotional.

Jokes at the expense of conceptual art, and their meaninglessness to much of the public, appear throughout the film, often quietly, as part of background conversation. At one point, Nielsen has to cope with a minor disaster: a work of art consisting of many small piles of dirt or gravel has been mistakenly swept up by the museum’s janitor. At another, Nielsen has to politely subdue the museum’s public relations staff, whose wildly creative ideas for publicity are far more artistic than practical. At one point, the camera catches an unacknowledged chimpanzee painting a canvas, probably a reference to a famous, art-related practical joke in which apes were alleged to have produced abstract paintings. Later, Nielsen endures an uncomfortable confrontation with a recent one night stand, made more difficult, and far funnier, by a noisy art display of precariously stacked wooden chairs directly behind them. The strange or ridiculous side of modern art is made lighthearted fun of throughout the film, as the somewhat more serious plot unfolds.

Soon, the tidy, well organised life of both Nielsen and his museum begin to crumble and become chaotic, and in ways that parallel one another. Nielsen has his wallet and cell phone stolen by an expert pickpocket, and becomes consumed by a determination to find the thief – the strongest emotion he has experienced in some time. The effort to track down the culprit leads him to more and more inappropriate actions, all of which have uncomfortable consequences. His rather aggressive approach to finding his thief is only the most obvious symptom of Nielsen’s difficulties with human interaction and trust. He also struggles with the human relationships in his life, with his two small daughters, his colleagues, neighbours, and a young journalist named Anne (Elizabeth Moss) with whom he has a brief affair.

Meanwhile, the museum is preparing for a significant exhibit by an upcoming artist in the ‘relational aesthetics’ school, Lola Arias. The central piece, The Square (based on an actual Swedish work of art), a quite literal item, consists of a large square outline on the floor, accompanied by signs reading, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations”. Trouble begins when the over-zealous museum publicists begin developing more and more unconventional and provocative ways to promote the new exhibit, some of the more bizarre material resulting in anger and controversy which Nielsen must attempt to quell.

The theme of Arias’ artwork, of detachment, indifference, and alienation between people, is paralleled in Nielsen’s increasingly turbulent personal life. His distaste for human contact is challenged repeatedly and uncomfortably; first, by individuals – including one angry and insanely persistent little boy – who were suspected of stealing Nielsen’s property; then by Anne, who hilariously and disconcertingly challenges his efforts to keep their fling casual and unexamined; and by his children, who fluster him with their open displays of emotion. Even interactions with street beggars are full of distressing and confusing mixed signals and baffled expectations. As he struggles to cope with other people and his ethical duty toward them, the message of Arias’ artwork, The Square, although at first glance shallow and contrived, continues to relate to Nielsen’s life and the lives of those around him.

As Nielsen’s life becomes more chaotic, so does the situation at his museum. The publicists go completely off the rails and put together a promotional event, a gala for the museum’s wealthy patrons. In a scene that is the highlight of the film (and which took several days of repeated takes to complete), the elegantly dressed guests are presented with a “jungle experience,” and faced with a “monkey man,” a muscular, wordless actor who presents an incredibly realistic impersonation of a gorilla. It is meant to be performance art which demonstrates something about human interaction, but it goes horribly wrong when the actor playing the gorilla becomes too wrapped up in the role, leading first to embarrassment, then alarm, and finally to violence.

The parallel stories, of conceptual artwork The Square’s message and Nielsen’s life, finally connect in a more obvious way, and in spite of the satirical elements of the film, we are forced to join Nielsen in looking at The Square’s message seriously and allowing it to influence him. In a poignant but unsentimental conclusion, Nielsen learns to question his own attitudes and behaviour, and to make the first steps toward changing.

The Square has flaws: it is long and often slow-moving; some of its humour seems to depend on class conflicts and social issues specific to Sweden, which do not come across to an international audience; and above all, there are too many sub-plots going at once. These issues don’t detract from the overall effect of a sharp-edged, funny, original, and often thoughtful approach to the connection between art to life.

For further viewing…

Ruben Östllund’s 2014 comedy/drama, Force Majeure, is another study of human interaction. A couple and their two young children are on vacation in the Alps when their hotel is nearly struck by an immense avalanche. When the father impulsively leaves his wife and children behind and runs for safety, his wife’s attitude toward him and his position in the family become uncertain. Their efforts to regain equilibrium are both painful and funny.