Leave the cannoli, take the movies

Review Blog

The Square

Posted by Jonathan Leithold-Patt on November 16, 2017 at 6:25 PM


Ruben Östlund


IDEA:  The chief curator at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm finds his life unraveling after he is robbed just outside the institution.

BLURB:  Boundaries pervade The Square, a mordant dissection of First World piety in which comically permeable facades uphold the illusion of a functioning social contract. Figured as an insular space of cultural elitism, Östlund uses the world of the contemporary art museum as a metonym for a larger Western condition of myopia and complacency, sharply divided from the economic and geopolitical realities for which it purports to vouch. Borders both material and intangible reinforcing such divisions are subject to Östlund’s merciless dismantling. He punctures the veneer of civility and phony humanitarianism embodied by a progressivist West with exquisite unease, delighting in the spectacular deflation of ego and decorum. In its best scenes, such as a post-coitus tussle over a condom or a performance art piece at a swanky gala that turns violent, The Square demonstrates a resonant, nearly anthropological attunement to contemporary social dynamics. Östlund is fascinated with how episodes of discomfort and frustration surface the most unsavory of human tendencies, how the disruption of habit draws out latent impulses and social tensions that destabilize our ordered assumptions, and make chaos of our behavior. Like so many of its European art house forebears, The Square skewers the pompous airs of a privileged class that prides itself on the suppression of such “disruptive” forces. It is superbly adept at doing this. But there is also the sense that in its (often facile) potshots at postmodernism and liberal conscience, it has fallen into a niche of self-importance aligned with the one it criticizes. Questioning the efficacy of art to effect social change is right – but is Östlund’s film a form of activism, or an indulgent artistic exercise merely flattering the tastes of its own rarefied audience? The wider implications of this are worth interrogating, and if The Square doesn't fully get there, it's at least a crafty and provocative prompt.

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