Maximilian Shatan, ’18
A Swedish farcical epic is not, on its face, typical Palme d’Or fare. That honor, reserved for the best film at the Cannes Festival, usually goes to films with a certain amount of gravitas, or at the very least, the kind of conspicuous cinematic self-awareness that critics go gaga for: The Pianist, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver. So, when The Square won the 2017 Palme d’Or, it came out of left-field. The movie is unabashed in its comedic stylings, bold in its overarching archness. However, throughout its 120+minute run time, the film proves to be just as challenging and provocative as the great Palme d’Or winners of the past.
The Square centers around Christian (Claes Bang), the high-profile curator of Sweden’s largest contemporary art museum, perched atop the former royal palace (in the film, the monarchy has been abolished). The museum is almost always empty, and the pieces contained therein are expensive boondoggles (a massive pile of chairs, a dozen piles of dust). Guards stand as silent sentinels, throughout the entire film, moving only to stop the museum’s sole visitor from taking flash photos. Christian, impeccably dressed and unfailingly rehearsed, is a bit like the galleries he curates: a shiny exterior with nothing underneath. We never really catch a glimpse of the man underneath.
Throughout the film, Christian instead chooses to define himself through the fidelity with which he adheres to society’s moral code. This conviction, however, is shaken from the very beginning, when his phone is stolen while he trying to protect a fellow pedestrian from an angry stranger (they were all in on the mugging). Christian is at a complete loss over why someone would do this. Frustrated, he seeks justice by shoving a threatening note into the mail slot of every door in the building where his stolen phone’s GPS signal is coming from. This attempt to keep the social order intact has mixed results, as his phone is returned, but he now has a young boy tailing him, demanding Christian apologize for the misplaced note. Throughout this drama, Christian is preparing for the opening of a new installation piece, a small square of museum floor marked out in neon entitled The Square, in which visitors “all share equal rights and obligations.” Since Christian is too myopic to be truly moral, he is constantly tweaking the social contract to his own liking, all while passing it off as “justice” or “compassion.” At one point, he goes off on a long ramble on class struggle, sitting in his expensive penthouse, totally alone, and recording it all on his phone. By installing The Square, Christian is inventing a space without contradiction, where the moral code is simple and easy to follow. He is inventing a space which he desperately looks for in the rest of his life.
For all its philosophizing, the movie is still very, very funny. The humor can be dark to the point of distastefulness at times, but is always driven by Bang’s deadpan delivery, which plays very well of off Elisabeth Moss’ constantly incredulous Anna. The most intriguing part of The Square, however, must be its climactic scene, which is as disturbing as the rest of the film is humorous. In it, a performance artist named Oleg (Terry Notary) traipses around a formal banquet hall shirtless and on all fours, doing a spotless impression of a gorilla. He jumps on to the table, hits glasses out of the guests’ hands, and screeches at the top of his lungs. Confronted with his presence, the tuxedoed attendants are at first amused, then terrified as Oleg refuses to break character. The sit in absolute silence as he rooms the banquet hall, confronting each table. The scene lasts around 15 minutes, and stops only when Oleg begins to assault a woman, at which point he is beaten by a mob of partygoers. Much like the movie as a whole, the scene challenges the boundaries between art and reality, between society and chaos. It will leave one disturbed for days. It’s worth the price of admission alone.