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NYFF Film Review: THE SQUARE Satirizes Modern Life

NYFF Film Review: THE SQUARE Satirizes Modern Life

While American cineastes grapple with the persistent dichotomy between left and right and strive to represent segments of the population that Hollywood has been accused of abandoning, European (and, certainly, Scandinavian) filmmakers are challenging their own leftist tendencies. So it is that in the Swedish submission to the Academy Awards, the satirical film The Square, a supposedly empathetic museum curator finds himself at odds with himself, and with most of the world around him.

At nearly two and a half-hours runtime, The Square boasts of several different storylines all intertwined around Christian (Claes Bang), the mid-40s, metrosexual curator of a new museum in Stockholm retrofitted from the old palace of the fictionally-abolished Swedish Royal Family. An upcoming exhibition entitled “The Square” is in the works, and it features a simple shape in the courtyard of the museum that is supposed to be a “safe space” for people to discuss ideas, express views, and voice concerns. Christian hires a PR agency to market this program, which leads to several headaches when different constituencies debate the limits of freedom of speech and the values that the museum itself is promoting by giving a forum to certain voices. Sound familiar?

The most interesting plotline emerges soon after Christian is hoodwinked by street peddlers who steal his wallet and cellphone. Tracing the culprits to a high-rise, multi-dwelling building in the wrong side of town, Christian decides that he is mad as hell and is not going to take it anymore, and writes threatening letters to the building’s occupants demanding the return of his property. The Muslim and/or immigrant denizens of these apartments do not all react with passivity to Christian’s selfish and irresponsible move.

But The Square is a satire, so do not get nervous expecting shots to be fired, at least not the literal kind. Instead, what follows is a complex, incisive, and thoughtful exploration of the limits of our own system of beliefs through the little episodes that arise from Christian’s acts. Confronted by these difficult questions, Christian, and the audience, do wonder whether they actually adhere by principles we carry holier than thou, when the rubber hits the road. Along the way, director Robert Ostlund (Force Majeure), criticizes what he views as industrialized nations’ hypocrisy towards the homeless, immigrants, and those less fortunate more generally.

Christian’s personal life also is rich fodder for The Square to mock the general absurdity of modern, first-world problems. He meets an American girl, Anne, played by Elizabeth Moss, who is more than a little bit terrifying as a somewhat clingy, wide-eyed lover that stays too close for comfort. Anne plops up uncomfortably a number of times, a symbol for what Ostlund thinks of (American) girls and a mockery of Christian’s own inability to form lasting relationships. Dominic West plays an American artist whose work is controversially shown at the exhibition, a proxy for artistic petulance and self-absorption but also for audiences’ inability to commune with difficult ideas.

A film as disjointed as The Square remarkably works on many different levels. Normally, a movie that is this indulgent can be irritating. I would not blame you for casting aspersions at some of the film’s more overwrought moments—a strange chimpanzee roving about Anne’s apartment, an extended, incredibly uncomfortable scene during the opening gala of the exhibition involving a muscled performer acting as a gorilla. No one single apparent theme emerges clearly from the fog of the absurdity.

But therein lies what makes a movie like The Square effective. The theme is life—not in the philosophical or majestic sense, but in the simple sense. Why we make the decisions we do, how we handle adversity, how we approach conflict and compromise and, most importantly, whether we actually live true to the principles we laud ourselves for believing in. The Square’s view is mostly fatalistic if not absolutely so, that human beings are inherently flawed and dishonest, while also meaning well along the way.

The Europeans have seemingly developed a hyper-cynical, post-liberal view of such matters. We wonder whether right or left should triumph. They assume the left has triumphed but wonder about its limits and its inconsistencies. They find themselves inadequate to live up to their ideals, surprisingly making them much more like us than you may at first think. The Square effectively bridges that gap without ever letting on that it is doing so. The Square is a narcissistic film about narcissistic people, and is there to remind us that simply thinking nice thoughts does not make the world a better place, and our self-congratulatory belief in the correctness of our principles means little if not put into practice.

Grade: A

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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