Home » TIFF 2017: ‘The Square’ Tackles Art and Class with Mordant Humor

TIFF 2017: ‘The Square’ Tackles Art and Class with Mordant Humor

by Simon Howell

In 2014, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund took aim at masculinity and bourgeois hypocrisy through the prism of one man’s overriding self-interest in his black farce Force Majeure; with his Palme d’Or-winning The Square, he broadens his attack. Taking on the art world, postmodernism, austerity, viral internet culture, and, yes, masculinity and bourgeois hypocrisy, The Square attempts a much grander project than its predecessor, and it’s to Östlund’s credit that most of it works.

Set in an alternate Sweden where the monarchy has been abolished and its headquarters, the Stockholm Palace, has been replaced with an art museum, The Square centers on Christian (Claes Bang), the chief curator of said museum. Christian is presiding over the unveiling and promotion of a major new piece – simply a neon square to be installed in the grounds outside the museum, meant to emblemize peace and solidarity. As he wrangles with how best to market a fairly innocuous exhibit, he also finds himself dealing (poorly) with being robbed, sleeping with an American art journalist (Elizabeth Moss, who gets the lion’s share of the film’s funniest material), and attending to other aspects of the work. The film is essentially structured as a set of tiny ethical dilemmas, akin to the opening sequence from Force Majeure only refracted into dozens of lower-stakes encounters, leading up to a final act in which the repercussions of Christian’s choices become clear.

Much as Force Majeure did, The Square runs out of steam in its final half-hour, having exhausted its themes and wrung all of the comic potential from Christian’s misadventures. Until that point, though, The Square is funny, savage, observant, and, in one sequence late in the film, surprisingly tense. Unlike some modern satirists, Östlund knows how to render his pathetic everymen *just* sympathetically enough to implicate the audience, while also avoiding tiresome finger-wagging. Maybe most impressively of all, Östlund is able to touch on a lot of pet themes without the movie feeling scattershot or unfocused, quietly making the case that the limits of postmodernism, late capitalism, traditional gender roles and online culture work in tandem to exacerbate some of our worst impulses.

Simon Howell

The 42nd annual Toronto International Film Festival is held from 7 to 17 September 2017.

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