The Square

I didn’t find The Square insufferable, exactly, but I read into its “awkward humor” style and “biting” satire an embittered cry for help. And, without sinking into my armchair too deeply, I think that much of its acclaim (it won the Palme d’Or) stems from elite circles’ sympathy with the director’s predicament. In other words, the call is coming from inside the house.

If Amour reflected the death of the haute bourgeoisie, The Square is its Night of the Living Dead. The tune of its dog whistle is the sadomasochistic tension that the cultural elite feels these days, a sense that their authority as “gate keepers” has been chipped away to the point of castration mingled with a contradictory pang of guilt over their status and privilege. This is a movie by a privileged white man about a privileged white man: the curator of a contemporary art museum, played by Claes Bang. (I don’t know if his name, Christian, has symbolic import or if that’s just what half of the men in Stockholm are named.) The theme of his story might be that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, but that’s a trifle less damning when one considers that bad intentions are imputed to just about everyone else. Christian gets to be bonehead and egghead in one sleek package.

The art world provides such low-hanging fruit for satire that it’s faint praise to say that the director, Ruben Östlund, scores a few sour grapes. But the film makes no distinction between a Jeff Koons and a de Kooning, and assures us that the characters don’t either. The two artists who figure into the plot are foppishly detached and committed to the point of psychopathy, respectively; and it’s clear from the first five minutes, when Christian can’t articulate basic premises of art theory that have been ersatz since Warhol, that he doesn’t have much passion for his profession either—which leads one to wonder how and why he stumbled so far up the ladder.

There’s one work of art that the movie reserves admiration for, and it’s the one referenced in the title: an installation where, according to the artist’s statement, all are equal and to treat his or her fellows with respect. If the movie has a point of view, it is that we human beings, especially those among us privileged with whiteness, a penis, and two and a half hours to spare on this kind of fillum, do not live up to our civic ideals. Point taken. Christian takes overelaborate and fanciful revenge on a pickpocket. This leads to him injuring a child, and, in an unconvincing aside that takes on another easy target—social media—the loss of his career. But, schmuck though he is, he cares about making good, even if he flubs the execution. The branding experts are just out for clicks; his virtue-signaling critics are probably in it for the same; and Elisabeth Moss, playing an American expat journalist with whom Christian has a grueling one night stand, expresses motives that are deliberately inscrutable. (She’s like a woke version of Jean Seberg in Breathless, without the murderous joie de vivre.) Here’s where the movie, insecure in its attitudes, starts to hedge: “we” may not live up to our ideals but our fellow human beings wouldn’t deserve it if we did.

Likewise, the social-media satire takes aim at the low attention span of the memesphere, but since the putative high arts that the pitchmen’s viral ad is supposed to misrepresent are also bankrupt, the critique bombs out, landing between layers of having your kids-these-days cake and eating your arty-people-are-snobs too. This trite commentary seems even more feeble given the irony that I first discovered this movie through a targeted ad that looped its most iconic scene. This moment comes right before the climax, but it’s adjacent to the plot, like a musical number or dumbshow. In truth, it’s a canny use of Östlund’s slow-burn technique. A performance artist called Oleg (Terry Notary, best known as a movement choreographer in films such as Avatar and the Planet of the Apes reboots) is introduced as a living art object; he comes into a black-tie fundraiser on his haunches, in perfect imitation of a prowling gorilla. But he starts roughing up a fellow artist (Dominic West), who’s chased out of the room. And this escalates to groping a woman who pleads for help, but others are reluctant to offer it, uncertain of where performance ends and molestation begins.

This vignette makes no sense in the film’s continuity—one would think this would be on the litany of charges against Christian later, at his show trial, and might assume that the two prominent artists would be aware of one another—but it’s a powerful illustration of the bystander effect. It also dovetails with a critique of the fluidity between performance and reality, which has become fruitlessly prevalent in our discourse. And, in the past few months, it has incurred yet another meaning about the complicity of powerful people in sexual assault. This hobnobbing environment is no less a construct than the public spaces the square is meant to evoke.

That insight is canceled out in Moss’s subplot, however, because it is, to use a word that her character might use, “problematic.” I saw The Square after the Weinstein revelations, but before the coalescing of #metoo, and the queasiness of Christian and Anne’s interaction captures how confusing things are at this moment. Anne, whose journalistic credentials are never made clear, comes off no better than Christian when she interviews him in the opening scene. But her plucky professionalism melts away after a couple drinks; she yells “cunt!” while she and Christian are in line for the bathroom. He goes home with her, evidently charmed by the non sequitur. Though he doesn’t appear to impress her under the sheets, Anne snatches his condom when they’re done and insists on throwing it away herself. Paranoid about what she might do with her souvenir, Christian engages her in a slapstick tug of war with his sperm-sodden rubber.

This is a cute-enough manifestation of male anxiety, seen from the point of view of the more “privileged” party, but there’s a self-pitying ugliness to a follow-up scene where Anne confronts Christian about how they’d made a connection. (It’s clear from the evidence they didn’t.) Because he does not reciprocate those feelings, she calls him out for having used his status to seduce her, even though she self-protectively claims that his position had nothing to do with her attraction to him. There’s an uncharacteristically serious moment when she goads him by saying he doesn’t remember her name, and he drags the movie to a standstill by finally barking it out. It’s the only instance where Christian is allowed a shred of dignity.

This scene comes on the heels of Christian being told that the custodial crew has mussed up an installation piece comprising several heaps of dust. He reveals his true colors by deciding that it should be hobbled back together furtively; he does not express any interest in notifying the artist or any regard for the work’s artistic integrity. His cowardly contempt is heightened by the fact that he has this sensitive conversation in Swedish while Anne hangs over his shoulder. Since she’s just an American idiot, she wouldn’t be expected to pick up anything of his native tongue.

While some may find in Östlund’s deadpan a Shakespearean negative capability, I sense a lack of conviction brought about by fear. And yet I see lurking in his intransigence a certain immobility: he may not have had any other option if he wished to be sensitive to the intellectual climate. By this I mean the filmmaker would have risked revealing himself to be a card-carrying snob had he given the trashed installation piece any merit, so he writes Christian into an impossible situation: either he’s a sham connoisseur for neglecting it or a sycophant for respecting it.

Östlund likewise stacks the deck by making his yankee a sphinx. Anne uses all of the latest feminist talking points to paper over the fact that she’s a star-fucker. Or perhaps she is using star-fucker come-hithers to paper over the fact that she’s a feminist? (Maybe the outlet she writes for is There’s no way to tell, and no way for Christian to react: he’s sexist or he’s a sap. When he tries to buy food for a homeless woman who quibbles with him over the menu options, it’s the same deal. Should we interpret this to mean that he’s condescending or that he’s kind? And is her attitude meant to imply that he’s a chump no matter what?

Part of what gets my eyes rolling about this film is a matter of taste. I’d lump this into a subgenre of movies—le cinéma de sourpuss—that seem conceived totally from within the framework of a foul mood: the kind of knee-jerk negativity everyone feels once in a while, when we’re down on everything. For many of us, “everything” includes ourselves—sometimes ourselves above all else. But, since it goes against the psychological grain for us to interrogate our own motives, this line of thinking spawns Bizarro Mary Sues like Christian: a buffoon but still a mensch, and ultimately the victim of a shifty world. (Birdman and A Serious Man are cornerstones of the sourpuss movement, men being its primary contributors.) The Square, for the most part, succeeds on its own terms as a work within this genre; its negativity is unstintingly sustained. From time to time, it even wrings trenchancy from bitterness. But its millieu and moment strike an ominous chord: its cramped, strangled sense of humor could only be thus.

One can probably only get at this point indirectly. Get Out, which I sadly never wrote about after seeing it back in March, was a brilliant, lively, inventively clever meditation on themes not foreign to The Square. All of the seemingly well-meaning white liberals—the Christians of Westchester County—had to be exposed as false friends. Moreover, as hammered home by the ever-on-point Stephen Root, their racism was predicated on a fetish for the superior attributes of black people. Coming a month into the Trump presidency, Jordan Peele’s ideas were rightly seen as exaggerated for the sake of satire. A narrative with the opposite perspective would have just as correctly been lumped in with the alt-right: a worldview that’s antipathetic to satire. To engage with satire, one needs the concept of hypocrisy. Those of us who have it, though, can see that the artistic license to play around with stereotypes that’s afforded to Peele, a black comedian turned director, would not be given to cis-white-male Östlund. And it’s for the same reason that Peele would have once been ostracized: identity. This is not to say that Peele and Östlund have the same talents or intend to have their work seen by the same audiences. But the audience for the latter must, at some level, identify with his self-hatred and self-pity, which go hand in hand.

It’s a noxious but inevitable combination. By some well-meaning calculus, elites are expected to express shame over their status as a precondition for having it. Which is, in truth, about the only appropriate response one can have when told to check one’s privilege. But this show of modesty, like the command that induces it, might have less to do with introspection and social awareness and reform than it has with posturing. The expectations for change are often unreasonable, but then so is the disparity in privilege. So what we’re left with is a vapid, impassive disillusionment.

Those in dominant groups—at least in the cultural elite, which tends to feel more guilt and act with more compassion than the real elites—hold their tongues, unwilling to offend and thus unable to criticize any group other than their own. In trying to provoke, but straining not to upset, The Square comes from the sunken place that Catherine Keener lulled Daniel Kaluuya into while she stirred her midnight tea. Even if our well-intended ritualistic display is infinitely preferable to any system in which racial, gender, or any other kind of prejudice are accepted and encouraged—and I believe that it is—it has bitterness as a byproduct, which causes ideas like Östlund’s to come out slurred. And it could very well cause worse.

Let’s stipulate that only a fool would argue this point without a sense of proportion or history; my priorities aren’t that out of whack. But simply because there are crocodile tears operating behind any attempt to signal an injustice heaped on a prominent European director or the cultural elite doesn’t mean that the injustice shouldn’t be a concern—even if it’s only an aesthetic one for now. So long as authoritarians, without regard for classes not their own, co-opt the language of justice—especially when it’s hot with vitriol—it will remain a problem. It demands recognition because it breeds resentment. Even the good Christians of the world, who are reflective about their advantages, might succumb to it if exposed too long.


8 thoughts on “The Square

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