But is it art? – The Square (Film Review)


The age-old question ‘what is art’ runs through Ruben Ostlund’s Palme d’Or winning film almost like a virus. Through an extravagant banquet room accompanied by an uncomfortable performance, to a filmed discussion with a revered artist who is interrupted by a man with Tourette’s, to a deluded PR company’s attempt to go viral by missing the point of a new exhibition, art is questioned, admired and sometimes feared. “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” These are wise words that accompany the film’s namesake and echoed throughout the film.

Focusing on the chief curator of an art museum in Stockholm, Christian (Claes Bang) is a (presumed) divorced father of two daughters who sets off a chain reaction, ruining his life, when he attempts to get revenge on the people who stole his phone and wallet, all with a letter. The pen, in this case, is mightier than the sword. Distracted by his personal issue, Christian misses an important meeting with a PR company who has been hired to help launch a new exhibition ‘The Square’. The result is downright disgraceful, resulting in the ill-advised campaign ‘going viral’ but not for the best reasons.

With a variety of odd incidences and painfully funny movements, The Square maintains a balance of realistic humour and tragic realisations. Although taking place in the ‘art world’, the moments or even lines reminding us all about our humanity is at times alarming. In particular, a scene during a Q & A with an artist, a man with Tourette’s disrupts event. It takes a member of the audience to remind everyone that this man can’t help it and that everyone is welcome. The nervous murmuring from the audience leading up to this moment is mirrored in the audience watching the film. We all laugh to being with until the awkwardness of the situation takes hold.

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Art is the ongoing theme but the plight of the ignored, beggers and homeless people is an ongoing comment. Offering no solution, observation only, the film uses those in need as device to get people’s attention. As well as reminding us of our humanity, The Square shows the power of art. A disturbing scene that seems oddly placed and has no real baring on any the linear part of the film, brings an entire room to a standstill. A performance artist, Oleg, acts like a gorilla, exerting himself at first, to everyone’s amusement, but takes a darker turn when he becomes violent. The people’s reaction is equally brutal when they just can’t take anymore. Hammering home that art can be dangerous, treat with caution.

As a film that is actually quite serious at heart, there are some truly masterful comedic scenes. Through to deadpan delivery of lines and just the bizarre nature of people and their behaviour. The reason why The Square works so brilliantly with macabre and laughter is that it mirrors what we see and do everyday. The film questions and confirms our humanity at turns and reminds us several times that inside the square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Outside it, we don’t give a damn.

Dir: Ruben Östlund

Prd: Erik Hemmendorff, Philippe Bober

Scr: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary

DoP: Fredrik Wenzel

Country: Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark

Running time: 151 minutes


The Square will be released in the UK 16th March