Since it surfaced from under the radar to capture the top prize at this year’s Cannes festival, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s The Square has been perceived to be about many things. These include the random connections we make in the world, the shallowness of relationships we convince ourselves are important, the way we buy off our consciences, media that live down to the most toxic implications of the word viral, the deranged lengths we go to for the sake of our damned cellphones, and, most obviously and least interestingly, art itself.
So I’m happy to clarify, on the verge of its domestic release, that The Square is about the end of Western civilization. In no way do I mean it’s “dystopian” or an “apocalyptic” fantasy, since it takes place right now in a present day overrun by the nomads and refugees, both political and spiritual, lurking in all of The Square’s corners, which are more than the usual four. “I thought I could organize freedom/How Scandinavian of me,” goes Björk’s best lyric, though, not being a huge Björk fan, I stand correctable, and in the cultured and refined Scandinavian metropole of The Square we see enlightenment’s dimming, the social contract’s tattered edges, and an unraveling of progressive pretensions that feels all the more prescient a long year after the film wrapped.
Museum curator Christian may or may not believe or even care that some of his latest exhibitions— a square drawn on the ground, carefully coordinated mounds of gravel on a gallery floor, the threatened rape of a dinner guest at a gala, or the video of an exploding child—represent some aesthetic achievement. He would seem as indifferent about their artistic value as he is initially to the young woman in a public plaza, surrounded by teeming bystanders, screaming for Christian’s protection as an apparent assault unfolds before his eyes. Once shaken from his ennui to intervene on the woman’s behalf, however, he’s overtaken by the ramifications of that decision for the rest of the movie.
The Square is a Nordic La Dolce Vita, or maybe I mean The Exterminating Angel, where cynicism, aspiration, and just plain good manners are locked in a free-for-all on the forsaken plain of human nature, with the class strata that separate high from low collapsing. If this sounds like heavy going, the marvel of The Square is its wit, intrigue, and resonant non-sequiturs, which not only save the picture from contrivance but linger after the story finishes. In a part of the world where days and nights each last half the year, the shadows of the mind grow longer, rebelling against a square’s straightforward geometry.
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