NYFF 2017: Ruben Östlund’s The Square

On Film / The Daily — Sep 30, 2017

“It would seem that curators have replaced bankers as the villains du jour,” writes Jörg Heiser in a piece for frieze that addresses, among other showdowns, one here in Berlin that’s just resulted in the police clearing out occupiers from one of the city’s most vital institutions.

“So, why the vitriol?” asks Heiser. “A Swedish film that won this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes might provide an answer. . . . A few minutes into the film, all of the clichés are in place: the slick curator slouching on a designer sofa; the shallow, rip-off art works; the cryptic art-speak; the failure to respond candidly; the non-committal intimacy; the brutal doing-away with tradition, replaced by empty promises. Yet, Östlund’s film is more nuanced than it initially appears, and so is its central character. . . . The Square makes achingly clear that curators have been increasingly enmeshed in a public showdown of the pretty versus the scandalous, the smoothly marketable versus the bathetically moralizing. . . . Perhaps it’s time for curators to opt out of the false choices, live with their bad reputations and just get on with it. If the devil has all the best tunes, curators should stage all the best shows.”

The Square “follows the chief curator (Claes Bang) of a contemporary art museum in Sweden as he oversees the installation of a conceptual project that envisions a square in the courtyard of the museum that will serve as ‘a sanctuary of trust and caring,’ one where ‘we all share equal rights and obligations,’” explains Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice. “The film asks the central question: Can altruism, equality, and fairness be achieved by unforced, democratic consensus? (Not for nothing is the square placed exactly where the statue of a monarch once stood.) Then it complicates its inquiry by giving us a variety of scenarios, some gut-bustingly hilarious, that demonstrate just how petty, manipulative, weak, and cruel humans can be.”

“Östlund thinks, shallowly, in set pieces,” argues Keith Uhlich: “Christian [Bang] has a one-night stand with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) that revolves primarily around the disposal of a used condom; a self-absorbed sculptor (Dominic West) who attends his Q&A in pajamas is constantly interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s; a performance artist (Terry Notary, the go-to movement coach for many a motion-captured Hollywood blockbuster) literally monkeys around at a black-tie gala, ultimately bringing out the worst in the many affluent attendees. That last sequence is key to Östlund’s intent: He wants to confront and overturn our self-gratifying notions about art, to reveal how so much of it increasingly speaks to a pre-selected audience (like many a Cannes prizewinner, you might say). First, though, he'd have to have anything approaching an inspired vision.”

“It’s easy to mock artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, and, fortunately, this isn’t Östlund’s real agenda,” writes Steve Erickson at Gay City News. “He’s far more interested in the way power and wealth function in urban life; unlike almost every other film set in big cities in the West, The Square is true to the amount of homelessness contained there and the extremes of class conflict that result from the rich and poor constantly bumping against each other.”

“Following Östlund’s Force Majeure, The Square is another squirmy satire skewering the failure of citizens of Western democracies to adhere to the foundational principles of their societies,” writes Filmmaker’s Scott Macaulay.

The Square screens once more, tomorrow night (October 1), as part of the Main Slate at this year’s New York Film Festival. A theatrical run begins in late October.

Update, 10/7: For the Playlist, Jordan Ruimy talks with Östlund “about his own creative process, the disillusionment of the modern art world, and that crazy apeman.”

Update, 10/14: “At the press screening I attended,” writes Soheil Rezayazdi for Filmmaker, “Östlund cited the infamously nasty subway scene from Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown as a formative scene for him as a filmmaker. Indeed, I wouldn’t hesitate to elevator-pitch Östlund as ‘Michael Haneke but funny.’”

Update, 10/22: For Matt Lynch at In Review Online, The Square is “a heavy-handed, sort of clumsy commentary on inclusive spaces, unexamined privilege, and performative allyship that’s about people who make and promote heavy-handed, sort of clumsy art about inclusive spaces, unexamined privilege, and performative allyship—rather than confronting their own hypocrisies. And that’s fine enough: The Square is often very funny, it gets a lot of mileage out of its alleged timeliness, and, despite lacking almost any ambiguity whatsoever, it’s quite sharp with its barbs.”

Updates, 10/24: “Set in the luxe realm of contemporary art, the film traffics in the spectacle of public humiliation, the vagaries of virality, and the childlike outbursts of grown men,” writes Elbert Ventura at Reverse Shot. “There is also something of a nervous breakdown at its center, not necessarily by its protagonist but by the norms and institutions that sustain him. A lacerating critique of liberal cosmopolitanism, Östlund’s film is at once an art-house provocation of supreme calculation and a guttural sob for an unhappy West.”

“It’s a satire keeps the camera rolling after the punchline to allow time for the full, uncomfortable implication of the joke to settle,” writes Keith Phipps at Uproxx.

“Unlike Force Majeure, which had a tight narrative, The Square unfolds as a series of extended sketches, like Curb Your Enthusiasm for the Swedish art world, but even more awkward and brutally wry,” writes David Sims for the Atlantic.The Square could easily feel like a piece of performance art itself, particularly because its story is so aimless, bouncing in different directions in pursuit of the themes that most intrigue Östlund. But the film works because it doesn’t come off as empty provocation; every maddening choice evolves in ways viewers can understand, even if they’re grimacing as they watch.”

Updates, 10/25: “The art world is a soft target for satire, not least because the art world’s appetite for satire of itself is limitless,” writes Christian Lorentzen for the New Republic. “It’s unreasonable to expect any satire of the art world to be fresh, since knowingness is the first requirement to get in the door. The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this spring not because it lashes the art world in a new way, but because Östlund delivers his lashings so exquisitely.”

At RogerEbert.com, Scout Tafoya’s posted his video interview with Östlund (11’47”), noting that, for him, the film “clicked into place during this interview when [Östlund] started describing being inspired by the Leos Carax movie Holy Motors. Suddenly all the wide-angle hysteria seemed so purposeful, so dynamic.”

For the Film Stage, Josh Slater-Williams talks with Claes Bang “about Ruben Östlund’s intense direction, how he thinks he’d react in a Force Majeure situation, the feeling of being part of a Palme d’Or winner, having to share a scene with an intimidating ape, and filming a particularly funny sex scene with Elisabeth Moss.”

Update, 10/26: Opening his review in the New York Times, A. O. Scott focuses on the apology Christian records on his phone. “While Christian is willing to admit fault, he also feels compelled to note that the problem isn’t just a matter of his own thoughtlessness. . . . There are social forces and economic structures at work, he says, large historical tendencies that both extend and extenuate his guilt. . . . The Square is ultimately a long version of Christian’s rambling apology, ostentatiously smart, maybe too much so for its own good, but ultimately complacent, craven and clueless.”

“It all manages, despite its efforts to appear otherwise, to fall just short of genuine self-excoriation,” writes K. Austin Collins at the Ringer. “This being a movie about the art world and the upper crust, it’s in some ways a movie about Östlund himself. Yet the director somehow manages not to get caught under his own microscope. I walked away from the movie both times thinking, ‘So, then, what about this movie?’”

The A.V. Club’s A. A. Dowd has a few thoughts on that: “At one point, the museum’s dopey, exploitative PR team argues that the public really responds to images of the homeless. What does it say that The Square employs that very strategy, using vagrants as visual evidence of his characters’ blinkered indifference? It’s worth noting, too, that Östlund launched a real version of The Square a few years ago; maybe Christian is more auto-critique than straw man. The Square holds a mirror up to its audience, but it catches its creator in the reflection, too.”

Time’s Stephanie Zacharek finds The Square to be “ambitious and frustrating, teasing us into wanting to know exactly where it's going, only to slip away with a final shot that's barely a whisper. Yet its seductiveness is sublime. Instead of making you think—a tack that never works anyway—its way of thinking trails you, devilishly, out of the theater. It's a trickster in movie form.”

Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey finds that, in that ape scene, “Östlund gets at the what makes a movie like The Square seem even more provocative than it is: We love the idea that art should be confrontational. But we don’t really like to be confronted by it.”

Updates, 10/27: “Östlund’s craft is immaculate, his range ambitious, his shifts of tone breathtaking,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “It’s also clear that he knows museums from the inside and can be killingly funny about them. My only reservation is that The Square is a pre-Trump project released in the midst of the Trump era, when it’s become convenient for establishment conservatives (and justifiably inflamed leftists) to blame our situation on the bad faith of fancy-pants liberals. Sure, there’s bad faith, but whatever the curator’s faults, I can think of worse sinners.”

Like Yorgos Lanthimos, Östlund is a “disciple” of Haneke, argues the New Yorker’s Richard Brody: “Regardless of any political statements to the contrary, the effect of all three filmmakers is to feed the maw of populist resentment, to exacerbate hostility toward liberal society, to propose no change or improvement, to lament no tragic conflicts, but, rather, to reject liberal society with a muffled, derisive frivolity, to despise institutions, norms, mores, and—above all—the educated urban bourgeoisie and the professional competences and administrative order that it sustains. . . . Theirs is a cinema of reactionary snobbery, a righteous snort of contempt of exactly the sort that feeds far-right rejectionism all the way around to where it meets far-left rejectionism—in haughty, self-righteous, and humanly challenged cynicism.”

“The conceptual-fish-in-a-barrel potshots at contemporary art alternate with an ostensible critique of masculinity and privilege, building to a climax that endorses a compassion that’s mealy-mouthed and insufficient,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “For all the skill and polish on display, The Square is never anything beyond facile and pleased with itself.”

“The movie is an overlong series of loosely connected, leisurely paced vignettes that don't all pay off,” writes Mark Jenkins for NPR. “Also, Östlund's wit is sometimes just a little too deadpan. . . . The argument in favor of The Square is not that it's great fun to watch, but that it's very entertaining to ponder after viewing. It lingers, both amusingly and disturbingly.”

At the Playlist, Claes Bang tells Gregory Ellwood and Elisabeth Moss about leaving the party in Cannes celebrating the Palme d’Or win because he was afraid he was going to attack Östlund.

Update, 10/28: Östlund tells Bilge Ebiri in the Village Voice that “when it comes to Christian, it was super-important to me that he was mirroring the audience. My goal with the film was that it should be presented in Cannes in competition, and I will have this tuxedo-dressed audience sitting there and watching, in the monkey exhibition scene, a tuxedo-dressed audience. They should be confronted with themselves. I don’t look at Christian as more hypocritical than anyone else. I look at him as myself, because so often we put ourselves on the good side. Always, always, always. I want to create a sociological experiment where we can identify ourselves when we fail.”

Updates, 10/30: Rolling Stone’s David Fear talks with Östlund and Terry Notary, who plays Oleg, the performance artist and “wild animal” you see on the film’s posters. “The two ‘jammed on some ideas’ during a day of rehearsal; once 300 extras came in and filled the dining hall, the actor would start spontaneously reacting to people around him, switching things up take after take after take over three days. He knew he had to ‘remove the alpha male in the room.’ He also knew that most of the other actors would sit silently and stare at their laps even if he attacked someone—a phenomenon known as the ‘bystander effect.’ Everything else was fair game.”

More interviews with Östlund: Elena Lazic (Seventh Row) and Nick Schager (Daily Beast).

Updates, 11/3: “For those who had been paying attention to the Swedish auteur’s career over the previous decade, it probably wasn’t a huge surprise that Östlund proved to be one of the year’s breakthrough filmmakers,” writes Steve Gravestock at the top of a primer for the TIFF Review.

“I’ve spent so much time these last few months listening to people argue about The Square that finally watching the film itself was a little anticlimactic,” writes Sean Burns for WBUR. “As with most love-it-or-hate-it movies, I land somewhere in the mushy middle. . . . I couldn’t help hearing the Curb Your Enthusiasm circus theme music in my head during a lot of key sequences. . . . However, 152 minutes is an awful lot of this.”

Slate’s Sam Adams talks with Östlund “about witnessing a bank robbery, the social contract, and why he loves YouTube so much.”

“I think with this part, I got to drive a Rolls-Royce of acting. I can’t imagine an actor in the whole world who wouldn’t kill his family to do this part,” Bang tells Jada Yuan at Vulture.

Update, 11/4: Maxwell McCabe-Lokos talks with Östlund for the TIFF Review.

Update, 11/6: “The styles of comedy and performance zig and zag within the generous range of sweetly surly vignettes in The Square, from lightly surreal to lavishly farcical, and performances are compelling even at their oddest turns,” finds Ray Pride in Newcity.

Updates, 11/11: The Square “is better than Play, but not as good as Force Majeure,” finds Charles Mudede in the Stranger. It “has an act that turns a person's world and family upside down . . . Before the act, the art was just about names, money, and academic concepts concerning the human condition in a world that has no alternative to neoliberal capitalism. After the act, the art is directly about his life, clothes, car, job, relationships, and city.”

“For me,” writes Robert Horton in the Seattle Weekly, “the excitement waned as the film got into the last stages of its 142-minute run time, but until then it fulfills the requirements of an arthouse roller-coaster ride. It helps that Östlund has a secret weapon in the splendidly-named Claes Bang, a tall, dapper Danish actor who glides through the film’s nuttiness with the aplomb of a born leading man. His Christian is smart, stylish, and just morally complacent enough to mess up everything. Bang is fifty, and if there’s any justice this film will do for him what Inglourious Basterds did for Christoph Waltz: put a quirkily distinctive actor in front of a much wider audience.”

Jason Bailey talks with Östlund for Flavorwire.

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