Part art-world satire, part absurdist comedy and part social-commentary, watching The Square is like wandering around an art gallery. Anyone who’s been to an art gallery will recognise the stillness and slow pace (which accounts for the two-and-a-half hour running time) but despite this, there are lots of comic moments, including an ill-advised advertising campaign and the live performance art seen on the film’s poster.
The film is really hinged on Stockholm’s X-Royal Gallery’s lead curator, Christian Nielsen (Klaes Bang), who fobs off American reporter Anne (Elizabeth Moss) when she probes into the nonsensical art-speak on his website. It’s a great moment of culture clash as Anne concedes to his European philosophising which is professional BS-ing.
Christian’s social apathy is reflected by the public, as crowds of people wander past street beggars, glued to their smartphones. Initially the social commentary is more under the radar with the focus on comedy but near the end of the film, it’s soapbox territory. Your mileage on that may vary- is writer/director Ruben Ostlund mouthing off about the problem of homelessness or is it a study of middle class guilt? I would say it’s the latter- Christian is only struck by small moments of generosity when he’s doing well for himself. Besides, unless you are an artist who is actively engaged in social work, you can hardly make a film criticising art’s exploitation of social deprivation unless you are a massive hypocrite.
The film’s title refers to the X-Royal gallery’s latest art installation- a lit-up outline of a square in the gallery’s courtyard, with a plaque that says within the space of this square, everyone has equal rights. Is it genuinely thought-provoking or is it merely paying lip-service? Though the film is satirical, it does make you think about the point of art.
Though Dominic West gets equal billing with Elisabeth Moss, his role is only really a cameo, as the artist of one of the gallery’s exhibitions ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’. Sporting a pair of horrid yellow sunglasses that bring to mind 90’s Britpop, he is the typical pretentious artist.
Without wishing to give more away, the comedy ranges from satirical to black comedy to absurdist comedy. One particular bit of gross-out comedy means that you might wish to leave the children/grandparents at home, unless you enjoy the awkwardness.
One final note- despite the majority of the film being in Swedish, there are a couple of scenes in English, so that should open it out to audiences who hate reading subtitles.