Friday 30 June 2017

Sydney Film Festival (34) - The SQUARE ( Ruben Östlund, Sweden, 2017). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

The Square (2017), Sweden. Ruben Östlund (Director and Scriptwriter). English and Swedish language. Plattform Produktion,ARTE France Cinéma (Production Companies). Claes Bang ("Christian"), Elisabeth Moss ("Anne"), Dominic West ("Julian") and Terry Notary ("Oleg").

The Square (Ruben Östlund)
There are numbers of layers of meaning in this extremely clever and highly sophisticated film, generally described as a satirical comedy (although I think that expression should be addressed). A very quick shorthand test for me is whether or not I found the running time too long, struggling in the dark to see what time it might be before I could escape. This is a long film at 142 minutes, but it fully engrossed me and I was of the view that it was much shorter.

The initial and satirical part of the film concerns a museum curator, Christian, admitting without the slightest pressure in an interview that the important thing for a museum curator was to get money, as public museums were in competition with extremely wealthy individuals whose daily purchasing capacity was about equivalent to a year for the museum. Art is a business and in a subsequent address to his staff and some guests for an imminent new display of an enigmatic female artist, never seen in the film The Square, he rattles on about the merit of the art in increasingly illogical and superficial form, as if this is a real criticism and understanding of art, whereas one suspects that Christian has no knowledge whatsoever. The same may be said of his audience who lap up all the doggerel, but really want to go to the food tables!

The Square, the piece of art, is a rectangular shallow excavation in the brickwork of the exterior walkway/driveway of the museum itself and it is within this space that equality and harmony, to others especially, is to be supreme and for this feeling of equality to motivate viewers beyond the square and into their own everyday lives. That's not what happens to Christian. Whatever obligations he may have as a consequence of the art installation, do not pass into his everyday life of dispute and rancour. The trigger (which matches an event which happened in the life of the director himself), is the loss of his wallet and phone by theft from some very adept street entertainers/pickpockets. I think, although it's not absolutely clear, that his rage and determination to recover his effects stem from an assault on his sense of superiority. Anyway, the adventures or misadventures are quite amusing.

The plot darkens when the PR company for the exhibit, in fact latches onto exactly what the exhibit is and produces an appropriate campaign which so upsets the museum's board that Christian "has to take the fall" and resign. Despite all the trappings of upper-middle-class life: an electric car, the most modern of units and a fancy, non-clinging, non-live in mistress (Elisabeth Moss as Anne in a very well judged performance which I think may have been ad-libbed), at the end of the film he seems quite alone and unhinged.

There is one scene of quite chilling intensity. The American actor Terry Notary whose nightclub (?) act involves him in playing an ape (and his physiognomy is quite apelike – I mean that in terms of the muscular development of his body and his props), alternately and cumulatively amuses and terrifies the museum's patrons at a black tie dinner. This was so convincingly handled that I was never quite sure that the audience really knew what was going on. Viewers of course can't be sure but it seemed to me that the actors within the film had no idea either, basically whether to "laugh or cry". When a number of the dinner suited and generally older men attack this character Oleg, it seemed to me that at the very least they felt genuinely insulted and threatened. The attack really seems genuine. It is a scene very much of the same power as the incredibly striking avalanche scene in the director's previous film Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014).

Now all the above relates to comedy of one sort or another. I would like to introduce a further cultural reference in relation to the film. For the ancient Greeks, comedy was not necessarily concerned with laughter. Nor was tragedy necessarily concerned with sadness. The essence of tragedy was the working through (in a play, the ancient equivalent of a film) of some character' s "fault" that is some defect in his character which INEVITABLY brings about his downfall. Very frequently the plot can be summarised as the hero/protagonist being warned by something like the Delphic Oracle "never to go to X" and "never to do why". The protagonist spends the play doing what he thinks he has been instructed to do and it is revealed at the climax that his every action has moved him closer to X and the fulfilment of Y. This is exactly what happens to Christian. His defective character is a severe want of both internal and external capacity for analysis. He is fundamentally superficial and makes the mistake of thinking the new installation/exhibition is merely "business as usual", oblivious to the moral and consequential responses to his decisions.

That's not to say he doesn't receive enormous encouragement. All around him, artists and curators are mouthing the artistic equivalent of psychobabble. But ultimately Christian has to carry the can for his own actions. Amongst the most compelling of this artistic nonsense is a short scene with Julian played by Dominic West. I don't think a single sentence he uttered made the slightest sense at all.

This is an highly accomplished, first-rate auteur film. It certainly deserved so it seems its Cannes win (Palme d’Or) although a number of critics have commented that the films in this year's festival were relatively average. Whether it's a masterpiece as commented on by some, I am not sure. I think only time will tell. But it is a superbly crafted, intelligent and highly professional production. One last comment: Claes Bang speaks two languages very proficiently, his own and English (even if it is in a somewhat provincial accent). He moves from one to the other with effortless ease and I don't think the performance suffers from being in one language or another. Quite the reverse. I wish I could do the same.

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