The Square is Ruben Östlund’s look at the contemporary art world and how that world reflects the disconnect of society at large. At least, that’s one way of describing it. In a way, Östlund has added so many moving parts that it’s a challenge to describe the story arc in a simple way.
The film is a journey or maybe it’s a series of pointless adventures in the construct of a meaningless, handsome man named Christian (Claes Bang) with a little too much confidence in who he is because of what he does. Christian’s little life fits perfectly in “The Square,” which happens to not only be the name of the film, but also the new art exhibit set at the fictional art museum Christian runs. The museum is everything extra about the art world. It’s even housed in the former Stockholm Palace after the fictional dissolution of the Swedish Monarch.
Christian is a combination of every out-of-touch Gen Xer man and every emotionally blank Xennial. Constantly finding validation through what he does, but never being able to forget that he only has so much power as the art he surrounds himself with. Basically, Christian has tons of potential with zero payoff. I’d call him a narcissist, but even during his coming-to-Jesus moment–where he’s digging through the trash in the rain there isn’t enough gravitas behind what he’s doing to apply that label. Christian is perfect, poised and empty. He’s Patrick Bateman without the penchant for killing. His embossed cards are emotional holograms. His desire to compartmentalize everything is his murderous killing spree.It’s not that Christian doesn’t want to hurt anyone–it’s that he can’t be bothered to care.
Something curious happens to Christian on his way to work. He becomes involved in an altercation where he thinks he is helping a woman being chased by a man. In truth, he has been conned, leading Christian to devise a plan to regain belongings that were stolen from him. While it may work, the fallout is unfathomable and kick off a sort-of mid-life crisis where Christian is faced with the fact that his perfect little life is completely pointless outside of the identity of his job.
As Christian and the gap between his squareness begins to rift, he meets a reporter named Anne (Elizabeth Moss). After winding up back at her home, the pair has some of the most awkward sex of all time and when it’s over they engage in a huge argument over the used condom. It really makes you wonder, why am I watching this? Why is this happening?
To balance this new version of himself, Christian becomes increasingly withdrawn at work, greenlighting a wild PR stunt orchestrated by a hip marketing firm. They end up creating the wildest viral video of all time. It costs Christian his job, but not before the penultimate moment in the film that you may have heard about already, involving a performance artist at a gala in front of Sweden’s elite. The performance is totally method and engrossing as the audience before the artist seemingly become entranced.
This scene is one of the most captivating things I’ve ever watched. I wouldn’t say “The Square” is a perfect film. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. It’s clunky and unfolds oddly, but it also massages your brain if you let it. There are a million ways to interpret this film. It’s almost a kind of love note to the devolving of humanity. High-art for the youtube generation.
There is something about the way the film seems to inundate the viewer with a series of shorts that represents the way we are attacked by media. Just when you think you’re getting to the meat of an issue Östlund pivots and redirects. It’s like a high-art version of YouTube’s auto-play. As much as I want to explore each new piece, I am just as excited to see the next. This disconnect mirrors our need for micro-storytelling. Part of what makes the film work, or not work, is how the plot is structured like a series of short performance art pieces. I feel like whether you get it or not is purely generational. Boomers will hate it. They’ll think it’s trite and mocks all the structures we need to survive.
This all reminds me of a short story by Vladimir Nabokov called “Signs and Symbols.” It’s the story of an elderly Russian-Jewish couple who go to visit their son at the sanitorium for his birthday. Once they arrive, they’re told that they cannot see their son because he’s attempted suicide. So they return home and decide to have their son released. After this, they receive three mysterious phone calls. The first two are from a woman asking for “Charlie.” The story ends before we know who’s calling.
Along the way, we learn many things about the elderly couple and they seem like they’re the focal point of the story. However, the main thing we learn about the son is that he suffers from an ailment described in the short story as, “the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.” This condition also gets worse the further removed he is from what he knows.
Basically, everything around him is a sign and he is the center of all of these subliminal messages. In the context of the story, you have to decide which storyline is the main storyline and what are the symbols that support the themes of the main plot. Nabokov himself never clarified if “Signs & Symbols” was a story about a tortured man in a sanitarium who kills himself or if it’s a story about an elderly couple who try to save their son.
I feel like The Square is a lot like this. Christian is the physical embodiment of this device. So many things are going on around him. We experience his reactions to the poor, his co-workers, his children, his conquests, his job and social media. It’s hard to tell if he is a character or a device thinly veiled as a character. Either way, it was beautiful and I want to watch it again.
Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.