Ruben Östlund’s last film, 2014’s Force Majeure, built incisive social satire around a single incident. I’m referring to the scene where a husband fled his family in the face of an incoming – and ultimately unthreatening – avalanche. While Östlund’s film subsequently branched off to address a range of themes in the aftermath of the avalanche, that moment encapsulates the kind of pessimistic philosophy underpinning his new film, Palme d’Or winner The Square. Simply put: humans are selfish motherfuckers who only act benevolently because of the pressure of polite society.
The Square examines that idea like a jeweller scrutinising every facet of a diamond. An early scene establishes the premise well, as well-dressed Swedes march through a town square blithely ignoring homeless beggars and charity muggers alike. The camera encourages us to reflect upon how we do much the same in our day to day lives, protected by the way society tacitly marginalises these individuals. (Plus, chuggers are worst.) That spell is broken by cries for help that force “semi-famous” curator Christian (Claes Bang) into action – action to proves to be a scam that leaves him without his phone or wallet. Thus, a thesis of sorts: we act in selfish ways when it is permitted, and often charity and trust is met with betrayal.
Throughout the film that follows, Östung interrogates this thesis through a range of lenses. There’re the fine art abstractions of Christian’s art museum, like the exhibit where you declare that you ‘trust other people’ before being invited to leave your phone and wallet in plain sight (a blatant echo of Christian’s experience). There’s the titular square, an illuminated four-metre by four-metre space, established as a kind of utopian space where compassion is mandatory. Then there’s the film’s centrepiece, where a ‘beast’ (Terry Notary, doing his Planet of the Apes shtick minus the CGI) harasses and assaults a crowd of high society dinner guests who have been cautioned to remain utterly still.
It’s possible to read The Square as a satire of fine art insularity, but I don’t believe that’s what it’s doing; if anything, these exhibits/experiments are the most effective part of the film, reinforcing and enriching Östund’s underlying message. The surrounding subplots offer less direct takes on a similar message. Christian’s attempts to hunt down his robbers with the assistance of employee Michael (Christopher Læssø) coil into a Farhadian tragedy where selfishness begets tragedy. A brief romance with Anne (Elisabeth Moss) seems to primarily operate as a comedic throughline, with mixed results (it’s occasionally sharp, occasionally tired). And there’s a bit of commentary around ‘virality’ and the modern media connected to the repeated imagery of beggars that, for me, fell flat.
As a thesis film, The Square succeeds. Even I don’t entirely agree with the pessimistic portrait of human nature that it presents, it’s certainly a convincing argument that has you questioning the motivations of your own benevolence (or lack thereof). As a satire, it’s intermittently successful – there are some great sparks of comedy across the first hour or so, but relentlessness of its message, combined with an overlong 142 minute runtime, renders it flaccid by the conclusion. You can’t quibble with the potency of its images, though; Östlund certainly has an eye.
I left the film feeling somewhat unsatisfied, and to a degree I believe that’s deliberate. (Though it does make it an odd choice for BIFF’s opening night.) The Square regularly withholds information from its audience, while offering little in terms of concrete narrative resolution across its narrative threads. Paradoxically, I found myself frustrated by how hard it hammered home its argument while simultaneously wishing its subplots would align more coherently with its main storyline. I could just as easily gripe about how clumsily Östlund ties a story of a dark-haired boy to Christian’s self – or selfish – discovery as complain that the one night stand plotline seems disconnected from the wider thesis.
Much like Force Majeure, The Square provokes a lot of questions. Who are we, and why do we do we what we do? Are our moments of goodness and generosity effective, or merely concessions to a harmonious society? And if someone asks for help – really asks for help – how would we respond? But where I felt Force Majeure left those answers for the audience to ponder, The Square suffers from feinting at neat answers to these conclusions, even as it denies narrative closure. This is a purposely conflicted film, which ensures it’s interesting …even if it’s not always entirely successful.