‘The Square’ Exposes the Many Ways We Fail to Live up to Our Ideals

Revolving around the difficulty of art’s inclusivity, the Ruben Östlund-directed film is not just hard-hitting and profound but also funny and topical.

Terry Notary in The Square (2017)

Christian Juel Nielsen (Claes Bang), the chief curator of a museum in Stockholm, is a picture of elegance. He’s always impeccably dressed. He’s polite. He’s calm. He espouses liberal values. At the beginning of The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund, which played at the recently concluded Mumbai Film Festival, Nielsen is occupied with putting up an installation in front of a museum called The Square.

A four-by-four metre enclosure, The Square, says Nielsen, “is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” Standing inside The Square, people can reach out to strangers, sharing their discomfort and sorrows, hoping to hear words of comfort and compassion. The intent behind the idea is noble, but the film seems to be interested in a different line of inquiry: How big is the gap between intent and execution? To what extent can art be inclusive? And the most important, in the bid to embrace art, do we end up sidelining life itself?

When Nielsen is in his comfort zone – at home, in the museum, in an upscale café, with his friends and co-workers – he is dignified and likeable, championing progressive views and politics. But it is easy to talk about virtues – compassion, empathy, trust – when your own world is privileged and secure. The skeletons tumble out of the closet when the door is yanked open. Moreover, the film repeatedly seems to suggest our ideals cannot be divorced from this world and its people. So what kind of world does The Square portray?

In an early scene, after Nielsen has introduced The Square, a woman, standing in a big open area near the museum, is asking different passersby, “Do you want to save a life?” Most of them walk past her, not even stopping to listen, let alone help. This “Square” lies right in front of everyone, and yet it goes unacknowledged, unnoticed. There are plenty of other Squares elsewhere in the city: on the pavements, near the escalators, inside convenience stores, where people need food, donations and attention. But these worlds – visible yet hidden – are so ordinary that they don’t even merit our glance or, for that matter, our contempt. They get something worse: our indifference. These squares of squalor, unlike The Square, aren’t pieces of art; they’re simply life: monotonous, familiar, sad. The latter will prompt interviews, features and essays; it’ll be celebrated, while the former will remain hidden, as life at times is, by the complexity, beauty and lies of art.

The difficulty of art’s inclusivity is central to The Square. (It’s beautifully captured in a scene when a janitor, vacuuming the museum, disturbs an installation spread on the floor.) This theme is not just pertinent to Sweden, where this film is set, but also many countries around the world, especially India, whose elites – producing films, journalism and literature – must find ways to reach out and bridge the gap. It’s most evident in film and literature festivals, where the representatives of the topics of discussion – the society’s underdogs – are absent, in ‘manels’ talking about feminism, where women are absent. At times, all of it looks like a farce, an echo chamber of like-minded people who want to believe they’re pursuing and doing something valuable. Art can heal and comfort, but it can also lie, and Östlund is most fascinated by its deceptions, by the contradictions of artists, well encapsulated in Nielsen’s story.

Nielsen’s life is interrupted when he finds out that his cellphone and wallet are stolen. With the help of a subordinate, a young black man called Michael (Christopher Laessø), Nielsen tracks them down to an apartment building in the same city. Michael tells him to write a letter – warning the thief of the dire consequences if the cellphone and wallet aren’t returned to the nearest convenience store – and slip it inside the mailbox of every flat in the building, in a way directly accusing everyone of the crime. Nielsen likes the idea, but he doesn’t want to deliver those letters himself, for the building’s inhabitants belong to a lower class, and since he’s a public figure, he may get recognised. Michael refuses to deliver the letters, and a mild disagreement breaks between the two. Nielsen gives up, but, in his annoyance, makes sure to assert his power, cautioning Michael that, in future, dissent won’t be tolerated. That is all subtext, though; his actual words, like many of his ilk when unsettled, are passive aggressive: “I just want to be sure that I can trust you.”

Through different scenes and subplots, The Square keeps asking tough questions of Nielsen and, ultimately, us. It is not difficult to see ourselves in him: We hold progressive views; we engage with the right causes; we care for good art, and deep down believe (although we’d never admit) that we’re better because of that. The Square makes us introspect our own cocoons and comfort. It is easy to say the right things at conferences and panels, to write the right things in op-eds and pieces (even a review like this), to appear proper and pleasant and correct when the going is easy and smooth, but what when it’s not? At one point, while entering a convenience store, Nielsen rebuffs a homeless person, whom he had given food a few days ago because he’s worried about his cellphone and wallet at the moment. Once he finds them, he goes up to her and gives her all the money he has, prompting us to wonder: Can compassion ever be unconditional? And if not, what does that say about it – or, more importantly, us?

The Square is always alive to these moral bogs, gently exposing our hypocrisies, pinching our conscience, pricking our bubbles of self-righteousness. It’s also intelligent enough to not take sides. It is empathetic towards the well-intentioned folks; it understands that art can’t be inclusive at the click of a button, and so it doesn’t vilify the patrons of that world, either. When an artist is interviewed at the museum, a man in the audience keeps clapping and shouting, “Show me your boobs”; “Whore”; “Dick”; “F%$k off”. The artist and the interviewer are remarkably patient, even before they find out that the man is suffering from Tourette’s. The man continues to interrupt their conversation, but he’s not told to shut up or escorted out of the room. This is another side of the story, too, of art trying to accommodate. A film like The Square, standing outside the system, poking fun at everyone, could have easily been bitter and misanthropic. But it’s not. It’s humane and heartfelt and meaningful. It’s easy to be misanthropic and detached because misanthropy is the refuge of cowards. The Square’s ambitions and the ways to realise them are admirable.

Claes Bang in The Square (2017)

Claes Bang in The Square (2017)

With a runtime of 142 minutes, tackling disparate weighty themes, The Square is not just hard-hitting and profound but also funny and topical. Its relevance can be best gauged from a scene where Nielsen squares off against dozens of journalists. In a bid to publicise the installation, the museum hires a public relations company that creates a video of a six-year-old girl standing in The Square getting blown by an explosion, followed by the caption, “How much inhumanity does it take to access our humanity?” The video, posted on YouTube, goes viral, prompting a huge backlash, which makes Nielsen resign and forces the museum to take down the video. He announces his resignation at a press conference, where the journalists don’t applaud his stand but grill him about the perils of self-censorship, worrying that it may set a dangerous precedent.

In another vital scene, blurring the line between art and life, a bare-chested man is introduced to an audience in a banquet hall. The man, they are told, represents a wild beast. Depending on their reactions, he would either leave them alone or devour them. Dressed in formals, sitting at different tables, the patrons don’t think much of the event, so they chuckle. But they soon understand that the man means business. He comes close to them, makes eye contact and howls, cornering them for space. “This is turning out to be rather fierce,” a woman says.

None of them has experienced real danger before, and so they want to engage with this piece of art superficially – something that only mimics danger, not reproduces it. But the man, who was locked in a room for several weeks preparing for this role, has other plans. He wants to live his part. So he stands on tables, crawls on the floor, raises his hands and howls, slowly stunning the audience into silence and submission. His actions start becoming menacing and outrageous; he inappropriately touches a woman, causing her to flinch and shout. The audience doesn’t react. Are they giving the man the benefit of doubt, or the art its due, you wonder – or are they simply scared? It’s only when the man crosses the line of decency that an audience member charges towards him, and the rest join, screaming, “Kill the bastard!”, punching him hard. The Square doesn’t hesitate to question the pomposity of artists or the apparent passivity of art’s champions. Searing with relevant social commentary, The Square is a film of our times, and it being awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival, earlier this year, looks as much a political statement as it’s a recognition of its artistic abilities.

We’re not as honest or as courageous or as ‘woke’ as we’d like to believe. We underestimate others and overestimate ourselves. We haven’t quite figured out who we are. We like to hear the sound of our own voice targeting low-hanging fruits. We like our mutual admiration clubs, our cliques, our echoes. The Square is aware of the many subtle ways we fail to live up to our ideals. We have a long way to go – but that’s not the worst part, the worst part is, we don’t know that yet.

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