‘The Square’ Review: Humanity Is the Most Absurd Performance Art of All
“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” This is the description assigned to the provocative art installation at the center of the latest film from Force Majeure director Ruben Ostlund. For his follow-up, Ostlund expands his aim beyond the confines of marriage for a larger but no less precise satire — this time of a more social nature. The mission statement of the central artwork in The Square is also (obviously) referring to a figurative communal “safe space,” but Ostlund’s film is anything but.
The Square largely centers on Christian (Claes Bang), the narcissistic creative director of an avant garde museum in Sweden, which is currently housing an exhibition hilariously titled “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel.” Ostlund’s wry derision of pretentious artists and the meaning (or lack thereof) of their creations is probably the most accessible satire in a film absolutely drenched with it. Artists are an easy mark, but the sleek world they inhabit is fertile ground for Ostlund’s reflective caricature of humanity — presented here as a tireless, daily performance art.
A woman stands in the middle of a busy community square offering pamphlets and asking the upperclass pedestrians, “Would you like to help save a life?” Meanwhile, homeless people and panhandlers litter the very same square, as unseen to the passing eye as errant garbage. This is a succinct representation of one of the major themes explored in The Square, which effortlessly combines various thematic threads into an eloquent examination of class disparity. It’s a wildly entertaining film that effortlessly indicts both privileged egotism and performative empathy — the idea that people only advocate for or contribute to social causes to make themselves look and feel good.
The Square takes this concept to exquisitely uproarious heights in a cinematic experience that is somewhat metatextual. After all, film is art, and Ostlund takes time to pay satirical lip service to the journalists who both critique the form and promote it. Christian and the board of the museum recruit a millennial marketing duo to help them attract interest for “The Square.” It is conceptually a little too broad, this notion of a designated place where people take a moment out of their self-centered universes to take notice of the pain and hardship around them. It is a call for basic empathy and human decency, but that’s something the characters in this film (and many people in real-life, unfortunately) find too burdensome — unless, of course, they have an audience.
“The Square” is the inciting incident for Ostlund’s film, and it sends Christian on an existential journey that begins in the middle of a crowded pedestrian intersection when he stops to help a woman fleeing from her violent partner. Not long after, Christian is bemused to discover that the contentious lovers picked his pockets. With the help of his assistant, Christian tracks his phone to a housing complex populated by lower-income families, where he drops a smug letter into each mailbox demanding the return of his phone and wallet — and essentially accusing every resident of thievery.
As thought-provoking as it is hilarious, The Square sends Christian on an odyssey that includes a surreal one-night stand with a journalist played by Elisabeth Moss (whose character inexplicably rooms with a chimpanzee), a weirdly unsettling encounter with a pre-teen boy, and an artistic banquet featuring a visceral and confrontational performance artist who uncannily imitates a monkey. That artist is played by Terry Notary, the motion-capture actor from the Planet of the Apes films and Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
In The Square, Notary emulates a primate to unnerving perfection, upsetting the pretentious art crowd and its wealthy benefactors in ways that are both humorous and, eventually, deeply disturbing. Within a span of five minutes, Ostlund and Notary depict humans’ embarrassingly willful refusal to help others, particularly when it involves personal risk. But the most upsetting aspect of this strange tableau is the performative nature of the men who finally come to a woman’s rescue when the monkey-artist threatens to sexually assault her. They are white knights rushing to the aid of a fair maiden, but there is nothing noble about their cause.
The Square is a difficult film to discuss succinctly, because it is, in essence, like watching an existential crisis unfold through a razor-sharp satirical lens. What makes Ostlund’s work so effective — and so damn funny — is how readily we identify with it. His version of society is much more familiar than the uncanny idiosyncrasies of Yorgos Lanthimos, for instance. It is relatable and yet absurd; an elongated funhouse mirror that reflects the inherent ridiculousness of humanity’s egocentricity.