The Square is a film about a social experiment which is, in its own odd way, itself a social experiment. Said experiment asks if a panel of Cannes jurists can overlook a film’s glaring structural problems, general listlessness, uneven tone, and unfocused ideas in the face of a few scattered scenes of unbridled genius. The answer to that question is a resounding yes, as this past year saw the presentation of the festival’s top prize to Ruben Östlund’s bizarre meditation on human nature, beating out films by such festival darlings as François Ozon, Sofia Coppola, and Michael Haneke. One can’t help but wonder if the film’s winning is a spiritual consolation prize to last year’s snubbed Palme d’Or favorite, Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), another sprawling dramedy focusing on spiritually deadened members of Europe’s upper class thrust into a series of surreal happenings. Both films are meandering 2 1/2+ hour absurdities that seem to mistake tedium for profundity. (Exactly how much time in each film is devoted to lengthy passages of the characters driving in cars, walking through countrysides and urban developments, and sitting in mind-numbing business conferences? Probably enough to pump out a new feature-length film.) Both distract audiences from their fractured, episodic structures with explosive moments of unexpected comedy. Both involve the protagonists being confronted by human/animal monsters: in Erdmann it’s an old man in a full-body Bulgarian kukeri; in The Square it’s a performance artist impersonating a gorilla. And both, strangely enough, involve sexual interludes involving semen-play.
The film follows Christian (Claes Bang), curator of a modern art museum inhabiting what remains of the Stockholm Palace following the abolition of the Swedish monarchy. For one of their first exhibitions, an Argentinian artist installs a 4×4 meter square in the middle of the museum’s courtyard wherein people are expected to act civilly and responsibly. It’s a strange piece of participatory performance art with poorly defined goals and an even more poorly defined purpose. In other words, it’s exactly the kind of thing Christian and the museum’s executives hope will go viral. To do so, Christian hires two “viral experts” to create a click-bait youtube video involving the Square. Unfortunately, the stunt backfires when the idiot filmmakers center their video on a crying beggar girl getting graphically blown to pieces while standing in the middle of said Square while intertitles ask the audience how much inhumanity it must take for us to recognize the humanity in others. The video is swiftly condemned as racist, classist, and in extremely poor taste. Christian is forced to apologize and step down from his position as curator.
Okay, so that’s the general plot, at least as it involves the film’s eponymous art installation. You’d think this would be the meat of the film, but this takes up maybe a fourth of its runtime. Instead the film is an elongated character study of Christian as he’s jammed through a gauntlet of post-modern farces that strip bare his bourgeois, First World pretensions and force him to examine his role in society as both an individual and a member of the larger social order. The film’s central conceit can be summarized as such: for all his lofty pretensions, Christian is a petty, selfish fraud incapable of living up to the idealistic standards of the artwork he supports and promotes. And as with most films devoted to making broad philosophical statements about humanity, we’re supposed to see Christian as a one-man synecdoche for mankind itself.
Some of the parade of miseries. After his phone, wallet, and cufflinks are stolen by pickpockets, he sneaks into a building he suspects the thieves live in and drops vaguely threatening notes into all the tenants’ mailboxes. During his escape, he wrecks his car. Later, an innocent boy from the building unjustly blamed for the crime confronts Christian, demanding he apologize and tell his parents that he wasn’t the thief. It all ends horribly with Christian accidentally knocking him down a flight of stairs and sitting in his room for hours listening to the boy’s paralyzed cries for help. An interview with a famous artist gets continually interrupted by a man with Tourette’s syndrome, forcing him to choose between asking him to leave and asking the audience to tolerate his condition. He chickens out and chooses neither. A one-night stand with an American reporter ends horribly with a stand-off when Christian neurotically implies she wants to steal the sperm from his used condom. His self-inflicted indignities never cease.
As the film continues we realize that all these dilemmas are variations of the Bystander Effect, the psychological phenomenon wherein individuals are less likely to help those in immediate need if other people are nearby. The most infamous example of this effect is the murder of Kitty Genovese, a 28-year-old woman from Queens who was stabbed, raped, and left for dead while walking home from work in the early morning of March 13, 1964. Despite the attack lasting over half an hour outside her apartment building, dozens of witnesses failed to intervene or call the police as she was tortured and murdered. In Christian we see the opposite of Kitty Genovese—a bystander repeatedly given opportunities to break the cycle of witness pacificity.
No scene better illustrates this than the film’s centerpiece, a breathtaking piece of performance art where a black-tie museum dinner is interrupted by the appearance of Oleg (Terry Notary), an ape-man. The audience is challenged not to move or attract his attention—if you leave him alone, he’ll leave you alone. At least at first. Gradually, Oleg gets increasingly belligerent with the tittering, gaping dinner guests, even frightening several out of the ballroom. But then he begins to sexually assault a young woman. And incredibly, nobody moves. Everybody is so focused on not being singled out and humiliated next that they let Oleg start to strip the woman bare and rape her. It’s only after an ancient old man starts feebly attacking him that the others discover their courage and beat Oleg half to death. Noticeably, Christian is nowhere to be seen.
All this begs the question of whether The Square is actually good. I believe it depends on one’s personal taste for esoteric cinematic philosophizing. It would do the film a disservice to ignore its jaw-dropping observations and indictments of human behavior, much as it would be a misrepresentation to say that the film isn’t occasionally very, very funny. (One sequence where the American reporter confronts Christian about the future of their relationship after sleeping together had my audience howling for a good five minutes.) But here’s the unfortunate truth: The Square is an irreconcilable mess. Maybe if it hadn’t been so indulgent in its long, pregnant pauses and lengthy sequences of nobody doing anything in particular. Maybe if it had better balanced its didactic philosophizing with character-driven storytelling—watch any Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman film for the blueprint for how this can be done—or committed solely to one or the other. And maybe if the film had just been a series of provocative performance art pieces à la Oleg’s ape-man, then The Square would deserve the reputation that comes with the Palme. Instead we have the skeleton of a great film smothered in too many layers of fat and gristle.