Film Reviews

The Square

Published March 9, 2018
A fundraiser gone wrong in 'The Sqare'

As another Sydney Biennale looms one wonders why there aren’t more satires on contemporary art. The reason perhaps, is that reality routinely exceeds the wildest imaginings of the satirist. The beauty of Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year, lies in its understatement. It presents one bizarre scenario after another as if it were the most natural thing in the world.
The story is a variation on that old comic idea of an important man watching his career disintegrate, as little mishaps turn into major debacles. The paradox for a curator at a contemporary art museum is that being shocking, subversive, and even offensive is virtually part of the job description. So how can you go wrong? As David Walsh found when he opened his Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, there’s no surer way of getting audiences to love your exhibition than to warn them they’re going to be appalled.
Somehow, Christian (Claes Bang) chief curator at the X-Royal Museum in Stockholm, manages to overstep the invisible boundaries that define the limits of art. How he does so is the subject of a multi-layered tale in which all strands combine to bring about the curator’s downfall.
We descend on the X-Royal Museum, set in a repurposed palace in Stockholm, when they are holding a show of an important American minimalist named Julian (Dominic West), whose installation consists of identically sized piles of gravel. We’re obliged to think “Julian Schnabel”, although the works look more like something Robert Smithson might have dreamt up. Presumably Schnabel’s persona was a better fit for for the self-regarding arrogance of the superstar artist.
At the same time a new work called The Square is being debuted in the cobbled courtyard in front of the museum. The creation of an Argentinian conceptualist, it is no more than a line of light marking out a perfect square. In installing this piece workmen have to remove an old equestrian statue, which gets broken, revealing the casual contempt accorded to the art of the past.
The artist’s statement tells us that “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring…Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” With this kind of appeal to our better nature we know right away that disaster beckons. It seems the apparent modesty and benevolence of the concept needs to be sold to the masses with a high-powered social media advertising campaign.
Two young hipster PR geniuses are hired, and come up with an explosive idea that is sure to attract on-line attention. Christian has to sign off on the scheme but is too distracted to pay it much attention.
Having been scammed in a city street and had his wallet and phone stolen, he allows Michael (Christopher Laessø) a tech-savvy underling, to trace the phone to an apartment block in one of Stockholm’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. At this point anyone else would go to the police, but Michael comes up with a more creative solution. Christian is foolish enough to go along with it, leading to a chain of mishaps and embarrassments that spirals out-of-control.
What’s painful about Christian is that he is a phoney who can’t see himself as a phoney. He lives in a milieu obsessed with status but endorses all the politically correct sentiments about poverty and social disadvantage. He imagines himself as cool and open-minded, but what this really means is that he is willing to professionally embrace any silly idea without a trace of scepticism. He spends his days sucking up to wealthy sponsors, while extolling the higher spiritual purposes of contemporary art.
Christian thinks of himself as a liberated male, but uses his position to attract women. Even as a lothario he is unsure of himself, as we see in a scene where he has gone to bed with Anne, an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss), but the moment of post-coital relaxation devolves into a frantic tug-o-war over a used condom.
This may not be the worst moment in a story that breaks down into a long series of squirm-inducing episodes. That honour probably belongs to a black-tie fundraiser that goes drastically wrong when a performance artist named Oleg (Terry Notary from War for the Planet of the Apes), takes his act a little too seriously.
All of these scenarios are plausible although unlikely to occur in such rapid succession. We realise that Christian is a walking symbol of the contemporary art world, where the loftiest sentiments are paired with the most shameless elitism and fashion-following. Where irresolvable contradictions are swept under the carpet.
A contemporary curator may crave a succes-de-scandale, but in the back of his or her mind there lurks the niggling question: “How far is too far?” This is precisely what Christian discovers, and it’s not a thing of beauty.

The Square
Written & directed by Ruben Östlund
Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Christopher Laessø, Terry Notary, Marina Schiptjenko
rated MA 15+, 151 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 10 March, 2018