“The Square” will force you to laugh; then shock you into silence

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I walked into The Square, swedish director Ruben Östlund Palme d’Or winning sophomore feature, looking for some much needed high-art satire. If you want a film pegging down the cultural elite a few notches and find yourself with tickets you’re on your way to the right place.

What I wasn’t expecting was that Östlund would deliver such a scathing and blistering critique of not only what collected social obliviousness looks like, but what it’s so dangerously oblivious to. We’re living in a world of self-serving distraction and pat-ourselves-on-the-back patronage. We get by morally by expressing outrage at issues of the day with a few fiery tweets or a facebook status and then carry out our comfortable lives. Östlund is aware and not only calls us out for it but he shows us the consequences of our passive activism.

At the root of The Square is our flawed protagonist Christian, the lead curator at a museum for contemporary and modern art. Christian becomes distracted while pursuing an American journalist, played by Elizabeth Moss of Mad Men and Handmaiden’s Tale fame, while also seeking revenge on a bandit who stole his cellphone. These are the mundane matters of the contemporary modern art curator, and it’s a plot which unfolds with him fumbling the supervision of an ad campaign meant to promote film’s titular installation.

Woven throughout the main plot is a series of interconnected vignettes that demonstrate the power Christian and other members of Stockholm’s elite wield how it can wane, influence, and outright damage those near and far from it.

The plot is expected, and is calibrated to fit an audience that’s intent on seeing the high and mighty mismanage their responsibilities associated with gatekeeping our cultural institutions. Östlund is aware of this and has further engineered his film to implicate you in your ignorance to the world around you as well. His methodology his almost clinical: through his black comedic plot he forces you to laugh right before shocking you into silence.

The Square at the heart of the film is a intallation focused on the social contract that supposedly exists between decent well intentioned people in society. Those on the lookout for signs of early auteurship in Östlund’s work will note it’s a broader examination of the singular betrayal a man commits in abandoning his family at the prospect of a deadly avalanche in his debut film Force Majeure. You could transplant his characters and stories thus far to any city on earth and it would be an unflinching examination of the same thing: our inability to exercise decency in support of those we as humans owe decency to.

While The Square is interested in showcasing the harm we cause by feigning authority and seeking to correct our wrongs through misguided and ill-thought plans it’s at its finest, and most horrifying, when it hones in on our cultural trait to serve as bystanders; a particularly potent exercise in a post-Weinstein, post-Trump popular culture.

We live in a world riddled with violence, harassment, hunger, poverty and equal parts tolerance for those things so long as they happen outside of our peripheral; The Square forces us all to examine just how much it would take for us to break the silence.

The Square is currently screening at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.