PFF Friends Note: You can catch the encore presentation of “The Square” on Thursday, Oct 26, 650pm at the Ritz East
Vad är “the square”?
If you bought a program, you know that “The Square” is the 2017 Palme d’Or winning work of Swedish writer/director Ruben Ostlund. If you trust your American adverts, the film allegedly stars Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, but don’t believe their lies. The film stars and primarily orbits Claes Bang, a Danish television star. Moss and West appear as tertiary characters with their usual glistening steps, but “cameo” might be a better descriptor. More on them later.
No, if you’re going to see “The Square” on rep, make it on the back of Ostlund. His 2014 “Force Majeure” is an excellent cutting, domestic piece with killer wit and raw portraiture. If you liked that you’ll probably like this, and vice versa.
So what is “The Square”?
Plot-wise, the film trails the Head Curator of a Swedish Modern and Contemporary Art Museum (Claes Bang) as he prepares tries to recover a stolen wallet while also launching an ambiguous new art exhibition. Events surrounding these two arcs make up the spine of the film, but as a film it is limbed with a series of comedic, confusing, familial, and raucous set-pieces that serve as mirrors to Bang’s efforts at decoding modern art.
Claes Bang as Christian the curator is satisfyingly even-keeled. His portrayal is so dry and blasé that it teeters in and out of farce (a la Fry and Laurie, if I may). What makes him inscrutable in his solo scenes also makes him human in a way grand emoting wouldn’t. That will leave room for certain emotional nuances to slip past, but what can I say there’s a reason it won the palme d’Or and not the Teen Choice Awards.
At 144 minutes, the work has plenty of time to be both what it’s primarily about as well as venture into myriad other areas. The pace and demeanor make it a quick 2+ hours, but I get why you might not believe me. It is not a bloated film, but it is an ambitious one. So if you’re looking for a concise dramedy that gets where it’s going with a minimum of detours, no dice. But if you get satisfaction from a complex, encompassing work, one that evolves in stages instead of Eureka’s, you’ve got my word that “The Square” doesn’t drag.
So, what IS “The Square”?
As a film, you can solidly lock it into place in the Comedy genre. After that, though, sorting the film into a particular wing of the genre is less clear-cut. Pulling from satire, absurdism, macabre and gallows humor, and farce, Ostlund displays an incredibly stacked toolbox of dialogue, situational, and visual humor. In front of a packed house at the Philadelphia Film Festival, there were moments of universal chuckling, of scattered guffaws, and individual rimshot smirks from deranged individuals.
Elisabeth Moss, as usual, is sterling in her limited role. I’d intuitively label the film’s biggest flaw as Not Enough Moss. Two excellent dialogue pieces between her and Bang, on topics of art and sex, are razor sharp. And every other moment Bang spends with her is great too, ricocheting between the awkward and the bizarre on a dime.
Beyond the laughs, though, the film is a nesting doll of scathing satire.
Ostensibly, “The Square” is calling out Modern and Contemporary Art. Bizarre scoring and set pieces such as Stack of Desks make the films first jokes easy and digestible. The professional actions of the museum staff delicately reveals that they know they’re in on the joke but don’t want anybody else to know. Arch-eyebrowed security guards and junior staffers in “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” T-Shirts conveys the kind of pretense pretention that the high-art world we all know and love loves to revel in.
At the same time, the film is running a second criticism of human callousness and self-absorption. As opposed to the art satire which is colorful and presented on a tee, Ostund’s lambasting of social conscious is subtler. Scenes of the city’s homeless are contrast with images of the city’s affluent ignoring them, Scenes of individuals crying for help while bystanders determinedly ignore them, all going on while the film’s gaudier aspects almost seem to be distracting us from its underlying narrative. Some of the film’s most affecting scenes, two particularly vertical shots involving stairs and rain, are semiotic images which show just how far and how hard Christian will go to avoid facing this concept directly.
Neither of these themes is particularly novel. And some of the work’s efforts to establish its themes read more like sketch comedy; a group of young PR execs discussing the viral success of the Ice Bucket Challenge as a marketing wonder seems more resembling of a cleverer-than-usual SNL bit instead of a Palme d’Or winner. It is in combining these two themes that Ostlund demonstrates sophisticated craftsmanship.
The meat of the film juxtaposes verbose scenes of art presentation that are fully of sound and fury but signifying nothing with commonplace human scenes that tangibly apply the concepts allegedly on display in the Modern and Contemporary Art. These foils prepare the viewer for consider the dissonance between narrative and object, which then better shines a light on the actual object of criticism, which is the schism between how narratives are applied to social issues. And as the film progresses and the internal art of the film becomes less objects of ridicule and become the tangible manifestation of concepts which they were meant to be, Christian through this (and we through him) gain access to Ostlund’s perspective of Modern and Contemporary life.
Which, of course, is a method unpacking the phases of exhibition/non-exhibition that the film’s art-discourse language actually prepares you to engage with. If you speak art, of course, but who does?
Ultimately the artistic and social aspects of the film come fireworks in a pair of matched confrontation scenes (one of which is an absolute breathtaker that showcases Hollywood’s most accomplished animal man, Terry Notary). The film’s final scenes have been met with a degree of conflicting response: for those who want a strong declarative statement, or who are already miffed about how damn long the film is, aren’t and won’t be happy. Yet there’s a subtlety and understated satisfaction, which not to compare it to other great driving away endings a la “The Graduate” or “Midnight Cowboy,” is a satisfying ‘where do we go from here’ conclusion.
Is it a perfect film? Despite its Cannes hardware, nobody seems to think so. As much work as Ostlund puts into staging and shooting and scripting his scenes, key structural aspects are omitted or overlooked. Christian’s relationship with his daughters, for example, which we’re at points meant to think is important but which is almost purposefully diminished. It’s ambiguous if this is meant to be a statement about him as a character or a concession to the cutting-room. At points the film takes its priorities about what to show/not show too far, which suits a concept but lacks an aesthetic or impact. The film’s score is effective until it’s not.
Yet what the film does well, it does excellently. The actors shine, and the dialogue is polished to seem brand new even when it’s not. Gorgeously shot and intricately paced, and those who like the movie will largely enjoy themselves throughout. The film is far less obtuse than its trailer promises, but at the same time far more intricate.
To that respect, “The Square” is a quintessential Palm d’Or Winner: Where the Oscars tend to recognize the simplification of broad concepts, Cannes has a history of rewarding high-caliber works that have a sharp focus and excel at the specific tasks before them (Need I mention MASH (1970)? Need I mention Tree of Life (2011)?). It may be too rich a meal for conventional cinema, and “The Square” may be consigned to be a work mostly appreciated by the dedicated film-goer who crave Large Meals from precision auteurs (Wender, early Malick, Gilliam, etc.). Yet for its sophistication it is not inaccessible: the movie can be fully grasped in a single watch, but appreciating the full presentation excellence will well require a second viewing. Further, from certain perspectives “The Square” is frequently a lot of fun.