the square

review by rebecca wynne-walsh


“Not at all what I expected”, “all the funny bits were in the trailer”, “what actually happened?”, when statements such as these are made about films it is rarely in a positive context. In this regard, as in many, Ruben Östlund’s The Square defies all expectations to present a film that entertains, probes, provokes, shocks and intrigues, never in equal measure, sometimes all at once and never superfluously.

Claes Bang leads the impeccable cast as Christian, curator of a prestigious Swedish modern art museum in the days leading up to the promotion and unveiling of a brand new exhibition, the titular “Square”, along the way he must contend with the assorted struggles of his modern, or perhaps postmodern, life and its accompanying emotional detachment and ideological disillusionment.

Östlund’s film presents an intriguing and often downright entertaining rumination on the vacuous complexities in the lives of the elite faux-intelligentsia who plead for help in solving the world’s problems as they sit in black-tie attire before glittering golden table settings. The art works in Christian’s museum are repeatedly undermined, damaged and misunderstood by those assigned with the task of presenting them to the "unenlightened masses".

The Square pokes and prods at the perennially detached world of modern art that insists on its own messianic qualities without following through on them in any meaningful way. As an art piece itself this film shamelessly takes aim at itself and its own medium, highlighting its own flaws to motivate its audience into active engagement with the art which their may otherwise have viewed passively.

This is a difficult film to write about as it would be done infinitely more justice simply being watched and experienced in all of its weird and wonderful glory first hand. In saying that all the funny parts are in the trailer, I do not mean that this film is not entertaining, merely that its humour expands extensively further and contemplatively deeper than the trailer's selected punchlines. When I say it is not what I expected I refer to the fact that I walked into what I thought would be a satirical arthouse film and walked out of what I realised was a savvy satire of the contemporary art world itself. And when I voice my confusion as to what actually happened in this film I intend only to articulate how this film operates on the level of affect and effect rather than mere content.