BIFF 2017: The Square

Bergen International Film Festival

Ruben Östlund has established himself as one of the most relevant and polarising voices in modern Scandinavian cinema with only a handful of movies. The Square secured him the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is more than well-deserved. Because with this movie he is back in full force, after the somewhat lackluster Force Majeure.

With The Square, Östlund is back at his most uncompromised. Unlike the fairly tame and politically correct Force Majeure, The Square doesn’t hold back. Where Force Majeure‘s take on masculinity and family roles was acutely funny at times, it didn’t really cross any boundaries as to what we as an audience are comfortable to be confronted with. It’s far from a bad movie, but in the oeuvre of someone like Östlund, it felt entirely safe. It felt like a political statement that aimed to be politically correct. Luckily, The Square is a whole different beast.

The Square

The Square opens with a sequence that is so in-tune with the Scandinavian art discourse of today that it borders on pastiche. Elizabeth Moss’ Anne is a journalist (an art critic?) that sits down with art curator, Christian (Claes Bang) to ask a few questions. The first is a general one, “what is the biggest challenge of running a museum of modern and contemporary art?” She then moves on to the museum’s website, and specifically their synopsis of an exhibition. The way it was worded is as impossible to recall as it was to scribble down in my notes, but it’s basically a heavy-handed, long-winded, pretentiously vapid and vague, buzzword-filled sentence that really doesn’t describe anything at all. Anne reads this sentence, but Christian needs to look at it personally. He presents a flustered explanation about a search for what art is: “if we take your bag and place it here, does that make it art?” “Ah,” Anne responds. This is The Square at its most plain.

Like most of Ruben Östlund’s films, The Square isn’t rooted in traditional narrative structures. It is almost like an essay collection of disparate situations; The Life of a Curator at a Contemporary Art Museum. In this manner, The Square is very reminiscent of The Rules for Everything — their stories are filled with seemingly aimless and disjointed segments, that in reality reveal a lot about the characters and the themes they touch on.

In The Square, we follow Christian as he tries to track down some lost belongings, and as he works on the museum’s latest installation: The Square, by Lola Aris. The story and the world depicted in the film descends into a Ballardian one, in which Östlund’s trademark realism feels more fictionalized and staged than ever before. This doesn’t hinder it from ringing true, quite the opposite. It’s a satire and a serious examination of many things, mainly the Scandinavian condition — especially as we present it in the public sphere — and the art world, with all its pomposity and ludicrousness.

The Square is sure to offend and provoke, as it bites in every direction. The conversations that follow every Östlund film (with the exception of Force Majeure) has been almost as fun as the movies themselves. I’m certain that this too will spark a lot of debate as to whether or not it’s more toxic than it is a competent critical commentary, and I think that is especially valuable these days. Because there are very too few movies that dare to aim in this direction, without falling into speculative provocations (see mother!).

Elisabeth Moss i The Square

The Square, or Rutan, was an actual art installation that Östlund and producer Kalle Boman presented in 2015, and it sparked a lot of debate as to its values. Now that we’ve seen the movie, it’s hard not to think Östlund created this installation as both a teaser for the movie and an ingenious way to expose the presence of his commentaries in the real world.

Force Majeure and The Square seems to signal a significant shift in Östlund’s formal sensibilities as a director. With both these films, he has taken a step away from the handheld aesthetics that infused his earlier work with an uncanny realism. As I mentioned this doesn’t take away from the truth he aims to tell. Rather, it seems to open it for a new audience. This feels like Östlund’s magnum opus, and I’m excited to see where he takes it from here.

Per Morten Mjolkeraaen

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