Cannes 2017: Östlund's 'The Square' is Brilliant, Radical, Art Mockery
by Alex Billington
May 20, 2017
Oh my goodness, I love Ruben Östlund. He's quickly becoming one of my favorite filmmakers. Not only for the way he shoots his films – the iconic cinematography, the music used throughout, the way he blocks his scenes – but also the way he tells such radical, hilarious, brutally honest stories about our society (and all the problems with it). I flipped for his last film Force Majeure, which I also caught at the Cannes Film Festival in 2014. Östlund's latest feature film is a brilliant satire called The Square, set around a modern art museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The film mocks not only modern art and the entire art world, but pretty much everything else in society, including our perceived notions of helpfulness, free speech, shameless publicity tactics, the internet and "going viral", and our seemingly good intentions as people in this world.
There's so much commentary packed into this film that it's hard to understand and interpret everything in one viewing (which is a good thing this time), and I can't help but say that's part of the brilliance. It's so slick, intelligent, subversive, and yet so damn entertaining. I laughed more watching this film that I have at anything else I've seen this year so far. This is where Ruben excels - crafting deep, dark comedic moments in the context of situations that would otherwise be bland, or not funny, or just plain ordinary. He takes the mundane and critiques it not by telling us directly what's wrong, but showing us in subtle ways, through his cinematography and the actions of the characters that come into the frame. One event at the beginning of The Square sets off a series of events breaking down a man and making him question everything in his life.
Danish actor Claes Bang plays Christian, the head of the communications & marketing department at this modern art museum in Stockholm. Everything is fine until an encounter in a public plaza one day, and then things start to get crazier as he and one of his colleagues try to figure out what to do next. Similar to Force Majeure, the film examines the way we (as people, as a society) react to certain events - this time it's an examination of how we react to being asked for help. And this thread continues throughout the film. Ruben is so damn good at playing with our emotions, and giving us something to enjoy on the screen while still forcing us to hold a mirror up to ourselves as an audiences. In fact, no other filmmakers are this good at balancing this kind of brutal, self-reflective commentary while still making a laugh-out-loud, amusing film.
Beyond the unbelievably hilarious commentary on the art world, which is referenced non-stop throughout, the film examines so many different layers of society. It addresses themes such as responsibility and trust, rich and power, power and powerlessness, distrust in society, the growing disconnect between the rich and the poor, and so much more. Sometimes it's even just one scene or one moment that brutally critiques the way we, as a society, are reacting and responding. For example, there's a scene where people on their phones walk by ignoring a poor person crying out for help. It seems simple, but Östlund and his cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel frame the scene in a perfect way where it has a more nuanced emphasis on the disparity.
As much as I love this film, there's one big problem with it - the ending just doesn't work. It keeps building, and building throughout, and there's so much going on that I kept hoping the ending would live up to the rest of it. Unfortunately it doesn't, and it just sort of fizzles out after two hours. Which is a bit of a let down considering how terrific the rest of the film is, and how much there is to appreciate and enjoy about it. Perhaps there's a point Ruben is trying to make with this ending, and I'm sure there is, but it left me more depressed than anything. And after all this commentary, after all this sharp satire, I was hoping I'd leave the cinema with a big smile. But I lost that smile by the end. That said, I still love everything up until this point and will be revisiting this film for many of the scenes that are some of the most brilliant in cinema this year.
Alex's Cannes 2017 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing