Not everyone wants to be challenged at the movies. Just look at the “F” Cinemascore for Darren Aronoffsky’s mother! earlier this year. As much as people lament the absence of original movies, deviating from conventions is a risk and one that doesn’t always pay off. Writer-director Ruben Östlund’s The Square just might be that kind of movie.
It’s difficult to describe exactly what the film is about. The narrative is loose and episodic, but it revolves mostly around Claes Bang’s Christian, the head curator and public face of Sweden’s X-Royal Museum. We first meet him being interviewed by an American journalist named Anne, (Elisabeth Moss, dependable as ever). She’s nervous, unsure, but just when you start to feel bad for her, she asks Christian to explain what the description of one of the museum’s earlier exhibitions actually means. He’s taken aback, not just because the question is unexpected, but because he doesn’t quite seem to know either.
The description is both intellectual-sounding and meaningless and the exchange suggests that high art is essentially ridiculous. It’s a suggestion that recurs again and again—and not just in regards to art.
Indeed, the more time we spend with Christian, the stranger his life becomes. Though Östlund’s goal is–admittedly–somewhat inscrutable, one of the film’s recurring themes is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Shortly after the interview, Christian has his wallet stolen by a group of clever grifters who pretend to be in distress and then steal his possessions while enlisting his help in the faux emergency. There’s irony there, but as Christian faces one Job-like misfortune after another, it starts to seem as if helping others isn’t just potentially dangerous, it’s futile.
There is a thanklessness to the altruism we see throughout that’s made even more ironic by the fact that the titular art piece (which Östlund and producer Kalle Boman first exhibited in real life in 2015 for the Vandalorum Museum) is meant to emphasize how important it is for people to help each other. Just about everything that happens seems to refute that idea.
When his assistant, Michael (Christopher Læssø), offers to help Christian get his things back, he ends up hurting his reputation with his boss rather than helping it. When Christian offers to buy food for a woman asking for money in a 7-11, she doesn’t even feign gratefulness before she demands a sandwich and gets particularly uppity as she specifies that she wants it without onions. On some level, this is all satire, but it’s hard not to read a certain misanthropy into the proceedings that makes everything Christian does (both good and bad) feel pointless.
As for whether the film is actually enjoyable to watch, well, that sort of depends on the viewer. The Square is, essentially, performance art in film form. It’s meant to make the audience question social norms or patterns of behavior, so, some of what the characters do is deliberately abnormal.
Take the scene where Anne and Christian have a private conversation in a loud exhibit in the museum. Normal people would go somewhere where a loud crashing sound wouldn’t occasionally make the conversation impossible. Östlund is forcing the characters to stand there and have that conversation in those circumstances and depending on your perspective, it’s either amusing in its absurdity or maddening in its artificiality.
Like all performance art, The Square challenges the viewer. Östlund is questioning the very function of art and while we can read the film in myriad ways, its unlikely that we’re supposed to choose one interpretation. Modern art hits everyone differently based on their experiences and perspective. That’s kind of the point. What some will find funny, others will find grotesque.The effect is almost irrelevant. The true artistic act is posing the question in the first place.