Writer/director Ruben Östlund means to satirize modern art in this award-winning 2017 movie, “The Square,” but he also exposes some uncomfortable realities in this post-Women’s March as we currently ride the treacherous waves of #MeToo revelations.
The focus of “The Square” is the curator of X-Royal Museum, a former palace in Stockholm. A grand statue is being taken down from its pedestal and its journey lacks both efficiency and respect. That might remind you of the recent controversies about statues in the United States. “The Square” is supposed to touch a fundamental problem with modern art, that it sometimes has no meaning or is too pretentious, but there is an edge to it as well.
The curator, Christian (Claes Bang), is resting between interviews on an uncomfy-looking couch. This is about all-style and little comfort in between. His next interview is in English with a nervous reporter, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who asks him a question that seems esoteric, but neither she nor Christian seem to understand his answer. Christian’s example conflates fashion with function and draws from 1917 “Fountain” which was a urinal. There will be no artist playing chess with a nameless nude, but Anne will eventually find her to no-strings attached sex with Christian and he will suspect some calculation there.
When we do venture into the X-Royal Museum, we see carefully assembled piles of dirt or something similar that will surely play with the minds of clean-freaks. The larger than life projections of a man’s face who is acting in an uncivilized manner. We’ll see him later in a key scene as Oleg the ape-man (Terry Notary). That’s the scene you’ll see on many advertisements.
The ape-ish behavior of Oleg resonates in the movie when we learn that Anne’s roommate is a chimp. That might puzzle some since one wonders about all sorts of things like transport, licensing and just cleanliness and control, but Ostlund isn’t concerned about these.
Oleg the ape-man references Ukrainian-born Russian performance artist Oleg Kulik who was in a 1996 Stockholm group exhibition and performed as a dog. Chained up, he was labeled “dangerous” and during his performance he assaulted visitors and destroyed the work of other artists.
Yet this is not where the movie gets its title. “The Square” is a new modern art piece that the museum will be displaying. The social media campaign wants to make a simple square sexy and sensational. Christian explains that “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”
The questions are: What are those rights and obligations? Christian has his trust broken. He attempts to help a woman screaming, “He’s going to kill me” and pleading “You have to help me.” Actually, only two men attempt to help. The woman goes first to the unknown man and then the “he” in question appears. Christian attempts to help and commiserates with the other supposed good Samaritan, but discovers he’s been liberated from his cellphone, wallet and family heirloom cufflinks. Using his cellphone app, he locates his phone at an apartment complex. Instead of going to the police, Christian decides to stuff a threatening message through the mail slot in each apartment. One person certainly is guilty, but Christian doesn’t seem to care about the consequences for the others and that will come back to haunt him.
There is no doubt that this movie is about trust and caring. We seem to have lost trust in our fellow human beings, the police and even supposed arbiters of taste. What is most alarming in this #MeToo time is the treatment of women. Christian has two daughters. We meet them briefly because he is divorced from their mother. Christian’s relationship with Anne is one-sided and he’s evasive when she seem interested continuing their intimacy.
What stand out though is the scene with Oleg. Oleg the ape-man performs at a posh donor dinner. The men and women are dressed up and Oleg’s behavior harshly contrasts the glamorous, almost courtly behavior of the donors. This isn’t the brash new-cash kind of crowd. Oleg predominately targets women and the assault and terrorizing of one particular woman is the highlight of Oleg’s performance.
In contemporary times, there has been bitter questions about a woman’s place in art. The feminist activist artists group Guerrilla Girls aggressively asked if the only way a woman could get into the NYC Metropolitan Museum was as a nude–an object of male desire (“Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum” and questioning how art is evaluated (“When racism and sexism are no longer fashionable, what will your art collection be worth?”).
While the other questions by Östlund might be banal, this charge of sexism and racism and even the place of intimidation and assault in the art world surely is something worth considering more seriously now more than ever. Sexism and “MeToo problems are limited to Hollywood, Los Angeles, the United States or the movie industry.
As our Christian man, Bang is darkly handsome, spare and intelligent behind those red plastic glasses. He might seem like a Metrosexual–well-dressed, slender and attractive, but he’s utterly cultured and cold. He’s too esoteric for mundaneness of love and can’t be trusted for an honest answer or to consider the consequences of his answers. This isn’t a problem of an established member of art circles, but a symptom that we also see in the social media campaign where again a female becomes the victimized.
“The Square” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival this year and also screened at the Toronto Film Festival. It is Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film for the Academy Awards. In Swedish and English with English subtitles.