It takes just 35 minutes for The Square to become the very thing it is critiquing. As I watched what was possibly only the 4th scene in the film, I started to wonder if it was going anywhere. The answer, of course, was no. That is not necessarily a critique, Jim Jarmusch has made an excellent career out of films that just meander along, but meandering is not enough on its own.
The Square follows Christian (Claes Bang), the director of the X Royal museum of art in Stockholm. He’s arrogant and handsome with signature red glasses. He starts the film hungover after a night of hard partying and is dragged to an interview with an American reporter, Anne (Elisabeth Moss). During the interview, he is asked to clarify a general comment he previously made about art. His answer uses the example of Anne’s handbag, and wonders, if it was placed in a gallery, would be considered art. This is the kind of tired sentiment expressed about art for a long time but is presented as new, as exciting, as if Christian is a deep thinker. As becomes clear as the film goes along, Christian is the only one who thinks of himself as a deep thinker.
The film’s narrative is linear but is staged through scenes where nothing much happens. We watch Christian and Michael (Christopher Læssø) drive through a tunnel becoming increasingly excited as Genesis by Justified plays through their speaker. We watch Christian and Anne stare at each other whilst waiting for the bathroom. We watch Christian stop an assault, and then realise he has been robbed. We watch Christian do many things, but none of them are interesting, and if they started out being engaging, within 5 minutes I was screaming for the scene to end. It is clear writer/director Ruben Östlund wants to explore the awkwardness of life, and focus on the tiny moments instead of the loud spectacle. He did this so effectively with 2014’s Force Majeure, where a cowardly act from a father creates the drama instead of the avalanche it is related to. Action is not Östlund’s interest, it is the awkward complexities of life.
The problem is that unlike Force Majeure where relationships slowly unravelled from one moment, The Square focuses on scenes that show awkward moments, but without a narrative push to justify it. For example, one scene shows arrogant (a theme) art critic Julian (Dominic West) become increasingly annoyed by a man with Tourettes during an interview at the museum. The man keeps involuntarily interrupting Julian, and we watch some in the audience tell him to be quiet, whilst others attempt to stick up for him. In a film about Julian this might have been interesting, but instead, this scene like many others presents an idea for the audience to think about, but without just cause.
Unlike Östlund’s brilliant Force Majeure, The Square is an unfocused, faux intellectual study of the awkwardness of life presented as a thesis railing against the vapidity and wokeness of modern society.
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