The Square movie review: Stop complaining, you’re getting a Palme d’Or winning, Oscar nominated masterpiece
Director - Ruben Östlund
Cast - Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary
Rating - 4.5/5
You could take any individual scene in The Square, and depending on your mood at that particular moment, either deconstruct it or magnify it, and the scene will, largely speaking, be a relatively accurate representation of what the film is about.
These scenes seem to exist in a vacuum, stubbornly independent of each other; and at the same time, also cripplingly co-dependent - almost like small children, hungry but helpless.
And that is certainly what the movie thinks of its ‘protagonist’, Christian - he might be a marginally famous museum director, but as he bumbles his way from one bad decision to another, engulfed in a whirlwind of tantrums and indecision, he comes off as a particularly pampered child.
His troubles begin when he finds himself at the receiving end of a very elaborate confidence game. As he walks along the streets of Stockholm, minding his own business, he is approached by a young woman in distress. She begs for his help, clutching him in all the right places, with just the right amount of persuasive pressure. She says that someone is after her and that he must defend her. Suddenly, another man appears, offering support just when Christian is about to have a full-blown panic attack. They look at each other, clueless as to what to do; there’s no sign of the stalker. So after a couple of minutes spent in pacifying the young woman, they relax, having decided that the trouble has passed.
Christian thanks the man for his help and sends the woman away with a couple of choice words of reassurance. No sooner has the smug smile left his face does he realise that his wallet and iPhone have been stolen. And he doesn’t need anyone to remind him just how incapable he is of doing anything about it.
Like director Ruben Östlund’s last movie, the phenomenal Force Majeure, his new one, The Square, is a bitingly hilarious satire about masculinity, about the lies men tell themselves to reinforce the falsehoods passed down over millennia (probably by other men), and the intellectual superiority the male species believes it was born with. And like Force Majeure -- a movie that I cannot recommend enough if you’re fans of cringe-inducing sitcoms such as Ricky Gervais’ The Office or Arrested Development -- The Square’s success lies solely on how effortlessly Östlund manages to dismantle these archaic and frankly foolish notions.
Force Majeure was about a father who, when faced with a literal avalanche hurtling towards him and his wife and two kids while on vacation, instinctively chooses to turn his back on them and scarper. When the avalanche fizzles out well short, he returns to them, a sheepish look on his face, oblivious to the gravity of what he has just done. Östlund spends the next couple of hours carefully chipping away at the foundations of this family, maintaining a deviously uncomfortable tone, much like what he does in The Square after that fine scene in which Christian gets duped.
There isn’t a single man in this film who isn’t ridiculed both publicly and privately, and without mercy. No one is spared - not Christian, a man who almost always seems to wear the pathetic expression of a delusional movie star well past his prime, and not the pretentious artist whose work he is exhibiting in his museum. Dominic West plays Julian, whose name is a dig so thinly veiled that it blows away in an instant, revealing Östlund’s baffling prejudice against the artist Julian Schnabel, of all people. West appears in two of the movie’s finest scenes - both of which sharply poke holes into the theory that good karma is a thing that exists.
Instead, these scenes highlight the film’s central themes - they’re about the futility of kindness, and about how, when confronted with situations and people that we don’t understand, we react with suspicion and hostility.
And for a filmmaker who only operates inside the festival circuit - The Square was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar and was the surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes - his distaste for pretentious artistry is rather baffling. Because make no mistake, The Square lies squarely within the confines of arthouse cinema - and it’s a minor miracle that it is releasing in India at all. Honestly, I cant think of the last time we got a Palme d’Or winner at the cinemas. The closest we ever came, at least as far as I can remember, has to be Drive, which won Nicolas Winding Refn a Best Director award at Cannes.
Like his fellow Cannes winners, Thai maestro Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the great Turkish filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Östlund is a champion of constructing long scenes that could work just as well as short films. He thrives on silences and discomfort, taking immense pleasure in throwing his characters in awkward situations and watching from a distance as they flail about trying to escape. Which is what Christian does in every scene of the film - from making idiotic attempts to retrieve his stolen phone to confusing even himself whether or not he’s still relevant.
He’s not. None of us are, really. The Square is just another (rather absurd) reminder of the lies we tell ourselves.
Watch the trailer for The Square here: