Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s idiosyncratic vision may not be for everyone, but there’s no denying that it’s bold and original; his is a challenging lens, one which is darkly comedic, questioning, dizzyingly suspenseful, but ultimately satisfying if somewhat bewildering. Coming out of his Palme d’Or-winning 2017 feature, The Square, I couldn’t help but feel this entire wide array of emotions, even as I felt that I may not have “gotten” Östlund’s vision.
The Square stars the Danish Claes Bang, who is something of a treasure here, handsome and composed, masking a layer of fragility that constantly threatens to bubble over the surface. Bang plays Christian, the curator of a Stockholm museum of modern art, the kind of boundary-pushing museum where performance art meets the abstract, where you’re meant to question the meaning of, and definition of art.
Christian is looking for new ways to push the boundaries of art; on the eve of the opening of his latest exhibit, the titular glowing white square, we see that things have suddenly gone awry for Christian. As is appropriate for a film about modern art, Östlund dips into the abstract here, presenting us with images and ideas that we can’t always be sure are meant to be literal or taken on their faces.
Not content to merely question the world of modern art, The Square also delves into the more animalistic nature of humanity, while presenting us with artistic sentiments that are a stark contrast with the real world. The Square is, at its heart, a film about contrasts, and this is reflected in the beautiful cinematography, presenting us with dizzying images of mirrors reflecting our world back at us, of spiraling staircases and bold contrasts between sumptuous modern opulence and poverty on the streets. There’s clearly a societal statement underpinning The Square, but it’s either too obvious to really hit, or too subtle to be caught.
I’ll be completely honest – when I walked out of this film, there was at least a part of me that felt like maybe I just had missed the point of The Square. If the ideas being presented are merely the surface level ideas, then sure – I suppose that’s a statement to make. However, I have a hunch that there’s more going on beneath the surface that I must have just missed. With that said, there’s no denying the commitment to the bold vision that guides this film, the craft, and imagination, and layer-upon-layer of performance art. Ultimately I felt like the bold vision and ambition of this piece overcame its flaws.