The Square Review
It is obligation that binds us to society, constricts us to the breast of society, holds us captive and in turn offers us safety. We are obliged to contend with the concept of family, self, status, and humanity in the act of existing, and when we shirk those duties of contention we fall by the wayside. This is the thesis of Ruben Ostlund’s Cannes-winning new project The Square.
The film follows museum director Christian (Claes Bang) through a series of mishaps and mix-ups worthy of City Lights, predicated off the foibles of being a pretentious man searching simultaneously for deep and meaningful art and a way to profit off it. When he hires a PR team to advertise a new installation entitled “The Square” (a square of light in an empty courtyard) the click-happy millennial duo create a monstrosity which fuels endless personal and professional repercussions for Christian as he juggles being a good man, a happy man, and a man within the confines of society.
A word is repeated throughout the film - “help.” It is said by homeless people, a young woman pretending to need Christian’s protection before she robs him, by Christian when he enlists the help of the homeless person he turned down previously, and repeatedly in the climactic scene in which a live art installation attacks a ballroom full of beneficiaries to the museum.
This scene is nothing short of revelatory. A man (Terry Notary, famous for his motion capture animal impersonations) stalks the room on crutches which make him appear anthropoidal and harasses the nearby humans, making the room oscillate between nervous laughter to everyone waiting for someone else to stop him. He prances around, growling and grunting, knocking things off tables, and the jeweled audience applauds. He slaps men, throws things, and tests what the audience will put up with. Then, he leaps up on a table and drags a pretty young woman away to rape her. She shouts the mantra of the movie, over and over; “Help! Help!” No one comes to her aid.
Then, in a moment of wonderful catharsis, all the men leap from their seats and begin attacking the gorilla-man. It seems like a moment both necessary and engineered by the art project himself; one wonders what would have happened to that woman, how far the art experiment would have gone if humanity had shriveled in the face of atrocity. Overhauling the way we think about duty and obligation is the revelation of The Square, and Ostlund drags us like a clever lover through the film to a sensation of release; not a physical one but rather an intellectual one - to clarity. Peppered with joyous moments of hilarity, he pokes fun of our human propensity for cowardice and shyness and creature comforts, our urge to feel important, to feel valued, safe, and clear on our place in the hierarchy of life. If 2014’s Force Majeure (which chronicled a family’s anger with their patriarch after he fails to put their safety first at a ski resort avalanche) was a quiet and subtle ode to individualism within the framework of family, then The Square is a resplendent orchestral symphony on the phantasmagoria that is contributing to society at large.