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The Square is the quintessential film festival film - with a twist

Friday 21st July 2017

Part social commentary, part satire, the Swedish Palme d’Or winner will draw in festy goers like moths to flames. But is it laughing with, or at, its audience?

Photo: NZ International Film Festival

The Square is the quintessential film festival film. It’s very long: 147 very Swedish minutes. It’s smugly opaque, yet also incredibly on the nose. The world it parodies - elite fine art - is likely familiar, or at least easily recognisable, to a festival-going audience who are happy to laugh at themselves when that laughter is facilitated by an obscure European auteur.

No wonder it won the Palme d’Or.

So film festival-y is Ruben Östlund’s film, in fact, that it was given the very prestigious honour of opening the New Zealand International Film Festival - a return to Cannes worshipping tradition following last year’s opening night debut of Tearepa Kahi’s local doco Poi E: The Story Of Our Song.

Following up his much lauded 2014 film Force Majeure, Östlund’s The Square tells the story of Swedish art gallery curator Christian as he reels in the wake of a minor robbery and prepares for an an upcoming exhibition centred on the titular square: an installation comprised of only an illuminated square and a plaque, the latter of which informs the viewer that the space within is a sanctuary in which everyone has equal rights and obligations.

As we hear time and time again in garbled art jargon, the piece is intended as a kind of social commentary: if one were to enter the square and ask for help, those in proximity will be obligated to provide it - whatever that help may be.

For The Square this concept is at once hilariously corny and basic, and strangely alien to the society Christian inhabits - one in which repeated cries for help are rarely, if ever answered.

For Östlund, the inability of the characters in The Square to subscribe to such a fundamental social contract, is tied inextricably to their preoccupation with an art world that is outwardly sympathetic, but ultimately indifferent to the plight of the vulnerable. It’s also not a point that he feels he needs to make subtly, with repeated images of mass homelessness juxtaposing the gross excess of the gallery.

Sardonic and wry as it is, it’s also - for a while at least - pretty fun, and Östlund is at his best when luxuriating in absurdity: the totality of the male ego; the aggression of the media; the elitism of some pretty stupid art. Perhaps best of all are scenes of a pair of appallingly tone deaf comms guys, desperate for a viral sensation at any cost.

However, while it's very funny, it’s also pretty dark. In his quest to get back his stolen items, Christian’s seemingly harmless attempt at vigilante justice is gradually revealed to be significantly more destructive than anticipated. The ridiculousness of the art world goes from gauche to grotesque in a single, upsetting scene. Shots of beggars on the streets and allusions to class divides accumulate throughout, only to be paid off far more harshly than The Square’s genial facade would suggest.

Which is why, by the end of this sprawling, somewhat scathing satire, it's not particularly easy to know what to make of it. This is not to say it isn’t a feat of excellent, ambitious filmmaking - it is and then some. But, with its ambiguous, possibly rather nasty final moments, there is something acidic about Östlund’s conclusion, a bitter aftertaste chasing what one might have thought was going to be a far fluffier affair.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact where Östlund ultimately takes things, and the way he punctuates themes of social and class division, brings The Square well beyond the stock standard “homeless is bad” critique. But inherent in Östlund’s disdain for his characters is an estrangement from his audience, themselves likely guilty of similar sins just by virtue of being there.

For this reason it's hard to feel connected to The Square, which is perhaps the most film festival thing about it. Yet, with its cutting critique of the very people who like that kind of thing, there’s something risky and even exciting about that alienation. I wonder how many of last night’s Civic audience who laughed uproariously throughout felt to find that, in Östlund’s eyes, their bougie little lives are not actually that amusing - or if they interpreted it that way at all.

The Square is currently screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.

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Katie is a journalist at The Wireless.
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