In The Square, writer-director Ruben Östlund posits an age-old question: what is art? The response he offers, however, is original and refreshing, and we leave the cinema with a lot to think about.
Claes Bang is Christian, chief curator of a prestigious Swedish gallery. He talks of pushing boundaries, seeking truths about humanity, attracting audiences beyond the usual ‘culture-vulture’ crowd. He’s a sympathetic character with a gentle demeanour and an affable charm – and he appears to have a genuine curiosity about what art can achieve.
When he’s mugged, though – in broad daylight, on a busy street, amidst a sea of commuters – the lines between art and life are blurred. He’s scammed by a trio of actors – a fake cry for help (a sound that echoes throughout the movie), a fake attacker, a fake would-be-hero who enlists Christian’s support. Excited rather than irked by the robbery – he’s rich; he can afford to lose what they take – Christian decides to play them at their own game, embellishing his account of what’s occurred, and engaging in an equally audacious and staged riposte. We never know if any of the consequences are real – or if they’re just a continuation of the prank.
Is this art? If not, why not? What makes it different from Oleg (Terry Notary)’s ape performance at a charity dinner, where he terrorises the guests, first humiliating Julian (Dominic West) and then brutally attacking Prinsessan Madeleine (Madeleine Barwén Trollvik)? And how much of this is real, anyway? Are the victims actors too? And what about their rescuers? We’re left to ponder these ideas.
Despite its esoteric leanings, Östlund’s film is admirably accessible. There are numerous story strands, but they’re all as well lit as the exhibits in the gallery, with space for the audience to stand back and think. It’s funny too – and cynical. Even when a gag seems obvious, such as the unpopular ‘mirrors and piles of gravel’ exhibition being hoovered up by an over-enthusiastic cleaner, we’re pushed to think beyond our first response, as Christian whispers to his assistant, “We’ve got photographs, we’ve got the gravel; we’ll rebuild it ourselves; no one will know.” And so we’re forced to ask: if they succeed in replicating it, will it still be the same piece of art?
The over-arching story is one of personal development: Christian is not without his flaws, and he learns much as he confronts his privilege and prejudice. Elisabeth Moss is fabulous (of course) as Anne, with whom he has a one-night stand, and Daniel Hallberg and Martin Sööder provide some welcome light relief as trendy PR gurus, charged with sending new commission ‘The Square’ viral (they’re not dissimilar to Siobhan, Jessica Hynes’ W1A character; PR is obviously a target ripe for satire). Their ‘art’, of course, is considered beyond the pale, even though it garners the attention the ‘real’ artists crave.
This is a fascinating movie, eminently watchable and thought-provoking too. A tad too long, perhaps – a twenty-minute trim would have improved things for me – but all-in-all, definitely one to watch.