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Film

'The Square' Is a Brilliant Takedown of the Art World

Ruben Ostlund's latest satire bites back at the limits of altruism.

Rod Bastanmehr

Rod Bastanmehr

The social function of art is a hotly contested bit of liberal idealism. Art can help shape the world and the lives of the people living in it, but it's also a tentacle of a larger construct, which is the dividing line between our perception of the world and the world as it is. Those lines are crucial—and in The Square, there are four of them.

The Square is a satire that arrives right on time, at a moment in which the limitations of art are more apparent than ever—especially when the chaos of the moment seems etched from that same fire. There are limits to how much this modern blend of art and media can remedy, and the limitation is born from the fact that much of our current horrors are born from that same test tube.

The Swedish dark comedy took home the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, where it became one of the rare comedies to win the prestigious Palme d'Or. The satire centers on the debut of a new instillation at the X-Ray Museum, a contemporary art gallery sitting inside the former palace of the abolished Swedish monarchy. The titular instillation is a multi-disciplinary piece that asks the casual citizen to consider the moral imperative of his or her participation in the world at large. When you stand inside the square—four LED light bars affixed to the ground of the palace courtyard—everything you observe in the world becomes, by virtue of your proximity to it, your responsibility.

If only morality operated with the efficiency of a GPS: When Christian (Claes Bang), the museum's curator and the public face of its newest exhibit, gets his phone stolen, his attempts to track it down bring about one disaster after another. It transforms the personal into a PR nightmare. Every choice Christian makes, however small, is presented as antithetical to the thesis he is desperately trying to sell investors, artists, and the public at large.

The film is a cringe-inducing satirical drama about the hypocrisy of the art world and the people who confuse its esotericism with profundity. The brilliant opening scene features Elisabeth Moss (fantastic but underutilized in the film's only English-speaking role) interviewing Bang's museum head and asking him to explain the convoluted press release the museum has handed out during previews. Bang clumsily attempts to make heads and tails of it while Moss pretends to understand what he's talking about. It becomes clear that the project's success requires both parties to never press the other too hard, instead meeting amicably in the middle by pretending the other isn't full of shit.

The tug-of-war in that opening scene isn't just about the instillation; it's a microcosm of the entire art industrial complex and also about us. Christian claims the museum's piece is about the importance of altruism in a world that appears to be turning increasingly isolationist. He is, in many ways, the proxy for the film's writer/director, Ruben Östlund.

The piece is based on a real-life instillation that Östlund and the film's producer, Kalle Boman, exhibited in fall 2014 and presented at the Vandalorum Museum in the south of Sweden. It utilized the same basic premise as the one repurposed for the film: Attendees enter the exhibit and are greeted by two paths that diverge, each marked with a single declarative statement, "I Trust People" and "I Mistrust People." Both paths lead to the same place, but a series of prompts that follow take on new meaning depending on your answer.

Östlund believes that, while most attendees would claim that they trust people, prompts such as asking attendees to leave their phone and wallet inside a box unattended would reveal something much truer about the gap between principles and lived choices. The emphasis on shared responsibility and the fear of the Other might feel like a call-and-response to the Western world, but The Square isn't just a Trump screed or an anti-Brexit lamentation: In 2008, Sweden approved the opening of its first gated community, proving that even the most infamously egalitarian society was not beyond the pale of fear. Now, almost ten years, the film wants to ask the country where its sense of righteousness has gone. The piece is titled the Square, but it might as well be called Make Sweden Great Again.

The Square is a farce fit for whatever stage we've currently arrived at: Failures of the culture to propel the republic; capitalist ruin where neoliberalism expected a bed of flowers; a realization that the powers that be may not have our best interest at heart. One of the film's many threads center on the museum's slick marketing team as they try to concoct a promotional campaign that grabs people's attention by any means necessary. The result is a tasteless viral video that highlights the very chasm between altruism and self-promotion that the film interrogates with biting ease. Altruism may not be in our blood, but we seem to demand it of our institutions. Is art actually capable of transforming the world? If it is, are we the ones preventing it?

It's a worthwhile question in an era of bad behavior. Just late last month, the Emmy awards featured a bit with Sean Spicer, President Trump's disgraced former press secretary. Spicer spent a tortured six months as the parrot for an administration that made lying and fake news a near daily occurrence. In as much as a narcissist can use anyone else as a proxy, Trump would throw Spicer to lie for him, which resulted in Melissa McCarthy's infamous Saturday Night Live impression, presenting him as a beleaguered, short-tempered shrew, desperate to defend any of President Trump's bawdy claims in an attempt to get in his good graces. (McCarthy's performance allegedly contributed heavily to Trump's growing distaste for the then press secretary, complaining about the fact that he was portrayed by a woman.)

So imagine my surprise to see Spicer make an entrance fit for one of the Marx brothers. The bit, which features Spicer at a podium spoofing his own defense of Trump's inauguration crowd size, was meant as a jab, but it wasn't clear who the joke was on: Spicer, a conservative swimming in the liberal shark tank? McCarthy, who perhaps never anticipated being face to face with the man himself? Or was it on everyone who expected better from Hollywood?

It was a gesture that confirmed for many the relative apathy of coastal elites. It wasn't the image of Spicer suited and perched behind a White House podium that drew errs; it was the failure of the artistic class to put him in his place. Attempting to parcel through the optics was difficult because it began to resemble a snake eating its own tale. The only thing that became immediately clear was that the Meryls, the Clooneys, the middle ground between art and commerce probably won't be the ones to save us.

In 1964, the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese would go on to be credited with the birth of the social science principle known as the bystander effect, in which the probability of help in times of crisis is said to decrease the more people are around, resulting in a diffusion of responsibility and bystander apathy. The Square is, in many ways, an attempt to remedy the bystander effect by recreating it. But all it does is remind you that the night the term was born, everyone watched the murder and observed in silence, like it was something they were watching on TV.