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  • Writer's pictureMiles Stephenson

The Square (2017), Ruben Östlund [3/5]

Updated: Nov 25, 2022

An Unwieldy Satire of the Art World...

In a couple of scenes in The Square, Ruben Östlund's supposed satire of the art world, we witness the preposterous and pretentious elements of that industry; for the rest of the 2hr22min run-time, we follow a meandering plot about a postmodern man struggling against an absurd and unequal world with no greater lesson than "be compassionate." The film takes aim at hookup culture, media sensationalism, capitalism's perverse affects on art and art advertising, material inequality, the "cancelling" phenomena, and more, but fails to synthesize them into a worthwhile conclusion.

In the opening scene, a journalist asks a museum curator named Christian, played by the razor sharp Claes Bang, what his website means when they list an exhibition that "explores the dynamics of the 'exhibit-able' and the construction of publicness," a well-needed thwack on the heads of gallery types and their hollow buzzwords.

Later, an exhibit of earth art that amounts to a few piles of gravel in a blank room, is accidentally defaced by the cleaning crew and Christian suggests he and his colleague "fix" the piece by sprinkling the dirt from the garbage back onto the piles before anyone notices. Since the rise of conceptual art in the 60s and 70s, the technique or formal craft of an artist (the thing that once distinguished a master from an amateur) takes a backseat to the literary idea explored. This was the argument at the core of Tom Wolfe's 1975 book The Painted Word. "These days, without a theory to go with it, I can't see a painting... Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text." 40 years later, Östlund argues a similar point with a fraction of its originator's scope and humor. To his credit, Östlund couples this devaluation of aesthetics with a newer obsessive egalitarianism that can be found in the art world, the sort of relativism Tocqueville warned about in Democracy in America. The film's newest exhibit, a neon box of light replacing a far more impressive statue and its plinth, has a plaque that reads, "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations."

A third piece of satire comes in the brilliantly uncomfortable Oleg scene — the apex of tension in the film — in which a dining room of urbane culturati are held hostage by the performance art of a man imitating a violent ape. The actor Terry Notary, a stunt double and movement coach in the 2010s Planet of the Apes trilogy, strikes simian poses before dragging a woman along the floor by her hair while none of the guests intervene. There is a certain artistic solemnity in the air, one that compels people to go along with the lunacy against their better judgment. Incredibly, the scene was inspired by a real controversy in Stockholm in 1996 in which an artist named Oleg Kulik imitated a dog and proceeded to bite a man before destroying works of art. While I'm sure this scene was arguing something about aggressive masculinity (what 2017 loved to call toxic masculinity), its most clever insight is again Wolfe's idea: art is the modern religion of the educated classes. Östlund is more blunt and might say something like "the art world is full of bullshitters and rich people will pay exorbitant amounts for stupid things if they think it'll increase their social status." Fair point. But I think again Tom Wolfe offers a more interesting insight.

In the first chapter of The Painted Word, Wolfe argues that modern art gives its benefactors (the buyers, critics, etc.) the feeling that they are no longer in the middle classes and that they have transcended the rat race of modern life. The arts are a doorway into "Society." This, I believe, explains the pathology of the Oleg scene: none intervened because of the fear of being exposed as a middle class fraud. Unfortunately, the Oleg scene is tucked away in the last act of the film and never mentioned again; it would have made far more of a statement near the opening of the story or as a standalone short film.

Between these three instances of entertaining satire, there's tons of fluff. A pair of millennial consultants, presumably brought in to help the museum better advertise their new exhibits, are a painfully clichéd stab at the attention economy of social media and the absurdity of what young people will do (and advise others to do) to get clicks. Whether it's because the premise is low-hanging fruit or because their portrayal is so cartoonish, this pair falls flat and evokes neither humor nor intrigue.

When Christian and his assistant Michael are tasked with retrieving Christian's stolen phone, we see them discuss the entire plan in the office, we see the entire drive there as they discuss music and their vengeance on the thief, and we see Michael wait in the car and Christian scale each floor dropping off his threatening fliers. At multiple points I found myself wondering why this arc — Christian's struggle against the thief which triggers a new class consciousness — was chosen as the main storyline of the film, when the scenes in the museum aimed at the art society proved far more engaging. It's as if there's two movies, one thrilling and one boring, and we're forced to watch 75% of the latter and 25% of the former.

To make matters worse, in every other scene, one notices minutes and shots that could have been left on the cutting-room floor but instead drag on to exceed a 150 minute run-time. The scene in the mall where Christian leaves his shopping bags with a homeless person, the scene where Christian hooks up with the journalist and we're shown a long-take of her apartment with an unexplained chimpanzee pet, and the scene where Christian is cancelled because of an ad campaign with poor taste: all of these could have benefitted from an editor's discipline. 3/5.

Miles Stephenson

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