Identity politics hit the film industry hard in 2017. From the #MeToo movement exposing toxic creeps and the ongoing racially charged disputes over Oscar nominations, it’s perhaps not surprising that a film like The Square would generate some serious buzz.
The winner of Cannes Palme d’Or in May, The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund and starring Claes Bang and Elizabeth Moss, attempts to confront issues of personal accountability in our culture through an upper-class white man who’s seemingly got it all. Christian is the curator of a stuffy modern art museum in Stockholm. He zips around town in a Tesla. He practices off-the-cuff remarks for speeches. And he’s initially enraptured when robbed of his wallet and cell phone during a faked altercation on the street. It’s not until he attempts to retrieve his stolen items in the relatively impoverished areas of town that he’s forced to confront his position in society.
The irony here is that the museum’s newest installation, “The Square”, which Christian is attempting to market to the public, deals with these same themes. “The Square” is a small area of the museum’s floor designated by rope-lights, wherein anyone who asks for help must receive it. A plaque reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations”. Preoccupied with his personal issues, and with the help of two shrewd, millennial marketing agents, Christian bumbles the installation’s opening and shames both himself and the museum in the process.
The Square’s problem is that the shots it takes are just too easy. Modern art is ripe for ridicule, those involved we can effortlessly write off as bourgeois and pretentious. It doesn’t take much to drag a character like Christian through the mud. He is nuanced and likable, but the film’s greater message misses the mark through its characterizations of stuffy artists and naive, waspy patrons next to incessantly recurring depictions of the homeless and destitute. Its tools are blunt and obvious, the theme trite and conceited.
Claes Bang’s performance is the film’s greatest redeeming quality, dynamic and appealing enough that Christian is seen as more than the simple archetype he could have otherwise been. Elizabeth Moss is completely wasted here, only employed to highlight Christian’s clueless misogyny through a baffling reaction she has to their one-night stand. Her thinly drawn character only confuses any message on sexual politics the film attempts to endorse. The cinematography is often beautiful to look at and the scenes are directed interestingly, withholding typical reverse shots so that we’re forced to view a character’s reactions to dialogue offscreen. The film holds serious debt to Michael Haneke’s Cache, both in aesthetic and themes, and with the exception of its sometimes wry and effective humor, The Square compares unfavorably throughout.
The takeaway from the recent turmoil in the film industry is that those in positions of power and responsibility must be held accountable for their actions. It’s not for me to say whether the acclaim for The Square is a direct result, but through its broad depictions and easily skewered characters, this is not the film to uphold in that regard.