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Film Review: The Square

24 March 18 words: Natalie Mills

Hang on to your champagne and get ready to squirm – this is going to be the worst week of Christian the art curator's life.

Director: Ruben Östlund

Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West

Running Time: 151 minutes

The Square is an exercise in discomfort, treating you to a series of humorous and catastrophic events. It inhabits the mad, mad, mad world of contemporary art – a fitting backdrop to examine the human condition. Winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Ruben Östlund’s satirical drama is much more than just a parody. From the bystander effect to middle-class guilt, it playfully uncovers the hypocrisy of the complacent liberal.

Christian (Bang) is a frustratingly handsome and charismatic museum curator with a questionable conscience. In a bathroom mirror, he rehearses a faux-spontaneous speech to win over the museum’s rich patrons. He is welcoming a new exhibition to his hip and money-driven Stockholm gallery. The titular Square is a literal square, accompanied by a plaque stating: The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” A vomit-inducing marketing duo suggests they do “something like the ice bucket challenge” to grab attention for the piece. What follows is a series of nightmare scenarios as Christian’s professional and personal reputation unravels.

Obsessed with finding his phone and wallet, stolen in an ingenious confidence trick, Christian ropes in one of his staff for a mission in his “Tesla of Justice”. With his fear of working-class neighbourhoods and lacklustre attempts to help the homeless people of Stockholm, Christian is tragically unsuited to the reality outside his white cube. There is a delicious irony in how The Square encourages visitors to leave their valuables unguarded.

Despite its bleakness, The Square has wickedly hilarious moments

His slippery nonchalance extends to sleeping with journalist Anne (Moss); the first in a line of people to call out his bullshit. Another is a young boy who vows to create “chaos” for him, after Christian’s plan – i.e. posting an anonymous threat through every door of a tower block – causes the boy’s family to suspect their son is a thief. Meanwhile, The Square’s disastrous PR campaign is signed off. Christian remains blissfully unaware until YouTube calls to congratulate him on “Blonde Beggar Child Gets Blown To Pieces” going viral.

An unflinching look at the world's most awkward press conference makes a satisfying end to a slow-building farce. Despite its bleakness, The Square has wickedly hilarious moments. Overlong and somewhat less than the sum of its parts, many of its best scenes are non-essential to the plot. Artist Julian (West) politely battling against an audience member with Tourettes during a Q&A about his work is pure Curb Your Enthusiasm. A cleaner accidentally mistakes one of his artworks for rubbish and someone unironically describes this as “an emergency”. There’s a surreal sex scene culminating in a tug-of-war with a used condom.

The film has a theme of unanswered pleas for help, and the sheer desperation it takes to grab attention. A woman on the street asks, “Do you want to save a human life?” to disinterested passers-by. The stand-out scene features performance artist Oleg (Notary) provoking the gallery’s smug, tuxedoed patrons into action with increasingly violent acts.

There’s a difference between championing good causes from inside your bubble and actually helping people. Christian emerges more woke after his media crucifixion, but the damage has been done. The Square is a fascinating film and a terrible advert for Stockholm.

Did you know? Artists parodied in the film include Oleg Kulig, Julian Schnabel, Robert Smithson and Carl Hammoud.


The Square is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 29 March

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