When the curator for a contemporary art gallery falls victim to an elaborate pick-pocketing scam, he finds himself obsessed with seeking revenge. Yet with the promotion and release of a major art work looming ever closer, the stress of balancing life, work, relationships, and vengeance begins to show.
Has not yet been rated. Check closer to the release date. For reference, it was rated MA15+ in Australia.
Swedish with English subtitles.
2 hours, 22 minutes
Limited theatrical release from October 27, 2017.
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Christopher Læssø.
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Genre: Drama, Comedy
Rating: Currently NR – check closer to the date. For reference purposes, it was rated MA15+ in Australia.
No, it doesn’t have any relation to 2017’s The Circle! Thank goodness, because if they shared the same level of quality, then The Square would not have taken the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d’Or.
Director Ruben Östlund is no stranger to the illustrious film festival. His 2014 movie, Force Majeure, impressed critics and won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. It was Sweden’s entry for the Foreign Film category of the Academy Awards, and was later shortlisted, though it shocked many when it was snubbed for an official nomination.
Now Ruben Östlund is back, seeking vengeance with his latest flick, The Square. Once again, the plot centres on a cell phone, with a sly, quirky wit that’s fast becoming this director’s signature style. Outreaching more to the international market, either intentionally or just with some well-timed luck, The Square features the talents of Elisabeth Moss, who has recently been in the news due to her stunning performance in the popular TV show, The Handmaid’s Tale. While Terry Notary may not be a recognizable name, many may question why the highly specialized, ape-like motion capture artist is involved in a low-tech comedic drama.
Yet winning over the critics in Cannes does not necessarily equate to success in the Academy Awards. It’s also extremely rare for a foreign language film to not only be nominated, but to win the Best Picture Oscar. With other threats in the field such as On Body and Soul and Call Me by Your Name, does The Square have what it takes to score Ruben Östlund an Oscar?
Violence/Scary Images: An animalistic man terrifies a large number of people into submission. A man grabs a woman by the hair, drags her across the floor and begins to sexually assault her. A group of people assault a man. A boy is pushed down a flight of stairs and is injured. A little girl is blown up, though it is in the context of a terrible advertising campaign. However, although fictional in the world of the film, it is still graphic and gory.
Language/Crude Humor: All the swear words are said at least twice (including the big bad c-word). This movie also features a Tourette’s sufferer who utters some creative compilations. This film is subtitled, so the language is also displayed on the screen.
Sexual Content: There is one strong sex scene, which is a significant event concerning one of the side plots. It contains long close up shots of the characters’ faces during the act, along with graphic sound effects. Despite this, there is little to no nudity – a woman’s breast may sneak into frame, but it’s very much a blink and miss moment, if it does actually come on screen at all. There is a lengthy conversation about a used condom, which dissolves into a tug-of-war over it. There are also frank discussions about sexual intercourse and its purpose.
Drug/Alcohol Use: Alcohol is drunk to excess in a party setting. The characters are completely intoxicated; they lack large motor control over their bodies and become uninhibited in their conversations.
Spiritual Content: Religion is not brought up at all. However, the main character does develop a moral conscience throughout the course of the film.
Other Negative Content: The Square walks a very fine line between championing worthy causes and mocking the political correctness that surrounds them. For instance, during a professional interview with an artist regarding his body of work, a person with Tourette’s continually interrupts his responses. With incredibly rude words being unintentionally blurted out, others in the audience find the situation outrageous, though the artist comes to the defense of the person with Tourette’s and asks for tolerance. So on the one hand, the scene depicts a wonderful moment of acceptance, though the subtext still contains that air of hilarity, and it could be argued people with Tourette’s are being thrown under the proverbial bus in order to crack a joke. Later on, another character mocks what happened in the interview, though the receiving character does not find it funny; though once again a laugh is generated at the expense of those with Tourette’s.
The Square does this continually throughout its runtime with various issues. It pokes fun at altruism, the art world, homelessness, and what society finds tastelessly offensive. It’s difficult to determine where the filmmakers actually stand on these issues, given the level of satire present.
There are also petty crimes depicted, such as theft and physical threats.
Positive Content: The negative and positive content are intertwined in this feature. While it may be simultaneously mocked, The Square does depict some really great moral truths. It points out the hypocrisy found in modern societies where we speak about the importance of being altruistic, although our actions never seem to follow our ideals. The Square raises the sensitivities of dealing with minority groups and those most vulnerable in society. It’s also one of the few films that depicts safe sex, and dares to hold a conversation that confronts the harmful dissociative emotions that are related to casual hook-ups.
The Square is a wonderfully compelling string of awkward moments. Christian, despite being filled with good intentions, is a morally and emotionally dead man, merely doing the daily grind as a curator for a high-profile contemporary art museum. When his phone is stolen, Christian finds the event invigorating, though it slowly begins to throw off his regular day-to-day habits.
The Square is essentially three narratives in one, though all revolve around Christian’s life. There’s a story about his phone, his relationships, and his continual management of the increasingly absurd artworks at the gallery, including the promotion of the installation from which this movie gets its name. Christian flails from one to another, trying to keep his reputation intact after each ordeal, completely unaware of just how ridiculously funny his life appears to an outside observer.
It’s a witty film that doesn’t require the actors to overplay their lines. Most of the time the setting is enough to generate the laughs, with the delightfully pretentious art exhibits producing grunting noises that force the characters to pause in the middle of their serious conversations. After all, it’s just another day in the art gallery!
The satire is created through juxtaposition. The artwork in question, The Square, is a safe outdoor space that encourages the public to treat each other as equals, though it’s one of many in the art collection designed to test a patron’s moral compass. Several boardroom meetings are held to discuss how best to promote such a piece, with many characters nodding along as the usual rhetoric is spewed about equality and human rights. Yet when Christian leaves the office, he marches down his normal route along the city streets lined with the homeless, each begging for money or his attention, though he habitually gives them neither.
The hypocrisy isn’t lost on the audience. The Square satirically attacks the progressive thought narrative that dominates the upper classes these days, where it’s all talk and no real action. Yet it’s a message that stings. While Christian’s job entails dealing with the absurd, as a person, he is ashamedly relatable. It’s hard not to share his delight in exacting his (rather tame) vengeance against the thieves that stole his phone. His deadpan expression in response to multiple scenarios is one we’ve no doubt all shared, while I’m certain we’ve all spoken some of the politically correct rhetoric uttered throughout the film. While it’s obvious Christian doesn’t follow the faith of his namesake, he is a modern day everyman of sorts. So when his life naturally falls apart, it’s cause for alarm, as Christian’s moral compass isn’t all too dissimilar from the average person. With Christian practically playing both the hero and the villain, The Square holds up a mirror to the audience and forces us to question our own integrity.
Director Ruben Östlund is masterful in his use of timing, both in terms of comedy and suspense. He made my little heart pump with adrenaline over something as banal as a letterbox drop! Ruben Östlund successfully manages to craft a wide variety of scenes that range greatly from each other in terms of emotion, from amusement to shock, to cringe worthy awkwardness. It cannot be overstated just how many great scenes there are in this film. That’s why it’s such a shame to report the movie’s greatest strength is also its biggest downfall.
The Square treats us with one magnificent scene after another, but it’s not necessarily a cohesive film. It’s a fantastic collection of short stories, though that’s not the intended direction of the movie. The various narratives don’t fit neatly together or necessarily impact each other, as one might normally expect. While The Square is engrossing, it’s mentally tiring as it’s only natural to try and find the correlations, or to jump ahead and predict where it’s all headed and what it all means.
With the runtime reaching over two hours, it’s a long film and one can feel it. The movie appears to struggle to find an ending. There’s one jaw-dropping, intense scene set during a formal dinner event – you’ll know it when you see it – that seems like the climax to the film. Yet it’s not. Although great thematically, it isn’t even really connected to one of the main plots. With every scene being so great, it’s genuinely difficult to instinctively know how far along in the story you are until the end. With multiple plots, it’s hard to tell which is the main one; the phone, the job, or the relationships? Guessing the wrong one will leave you shocked to find the movie lingering on long after your favorite storyline wraps up.
As mentioned before, despite stumbling around, The Square still manages to be highly enjoyable. Some scenes are tense, but Ruben Östlund keeps the film within a light-hearted, satirically quirky realm. This is helped by the soundtrack, where the instrumental strumming of classical pieces are dubbed over with singers’ booping and bupping notes. It sounds simultaneously modern yet inherently stupid, which makes it all the more loveable. Other aspects of the film’s sound design are distracting, though not in a good way.
Multiple times Christian asks for a microphone while speaking to a crowd, though he sounds practically the same regardless. English audiences may also find the subtitles to be irritating, even for veteran viewers of foreign films. Every piece of dialogue is written out, including the scenes where English is spoken (there is an American character who cannot speak Swedish). It’s an uncommon approach, and personally frustrating if you have trouble ignoring the subtitles even when you can understand the language.
Yet those are minor criticisms of an otherwise great film. The Square is tremendous in many aspects; all the actors deliver strong performances, the score suits the atmosphere perfectly, the setting is delightful, while the cinematography quirkily brings it all together. It’s definitely worth a watch because there are a lot of scenes that will become instant classics, yet somehow The Square doesn’t equal the sum of its parts. Ultimately, the movie as a whole isn’t going to be strong enough to impress the judges at next year’s Academy Awards. It has a great style, though a story with a stronger through-line may easily topple this Cannes Palme d’Or winner.
+ Fantastic individual scenes/skits.
+ Great sense of comedy.
+ Strong performances.
- Not a cohesive narrative.
- Subtitles over English parts can be distracting.
- Potentially mocks vulnerable minority groups.