“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” This is the concept behind the film’s namesake, an exhibition developed at the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm. For myself, and any other politically or artistically inclined person, The Square is anything but a sanctuary: director Ruben Östland’s work is designed to make the most open-minded among us squirm in our seats, confronted with the dark, yet moderately humorous, side of liberal society.
Released in 2017, The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, as well as winning six European Film awards, including Best Film. The secret behind its success is the ability to operate two plot lines independently of one another, while tying both into the wider notion of social responsibility.
One is the development of the exhibition, a minimalist space titled ‘The Square.’ The idea is that anyone within the square is entitled to the help, trust and inclusion of others. Taking this progressive ethos, Östland juxtaposes the art world with the inevitable role of capitalism and superficiality. While claiming to promote the collective, the individuals behind the museum are paradoxically selfish, and we witness and cringe at the various faux-pas made by the artistic elites.
The other narrative follows the personal life and loves of Christian, the suave museum curator responsible for the organisation and marketing of ‘The Square.’ While supposedly at the forefront of progress, Christian hatches a childish plan to retrieve his stolen mobile phone, while zooming around an impoverished area of Stockholm in his swish electric car. I would compare Christian to a teenage boy, who while sharing Facebook posts with peers to raise awareness of homelessness, in the same afternoon mocks an unpopular classmate for looking ‘homeless.’ Christian is a walking paradox, but it is refreshing to watch his pre-conceptions be challenged alongside our own.
With Christian played by Danish actor Claes Brand, a largely international cast is showcased. Elisabeth Moss, West Wing and Mad Men star, portrays a bemused American journalist, and English actor Dominic West plays the artist behind the exhibition. Moss, as ever, succeeds in striking the balance between humour and somewhat troubling vulnerability. In this instance, her character acts as a mirror to the flawed personality of Christian, by challenging the moral pedestal on which he holds himself.
The most remarkable performance, however, is carried out by Rise of the Planet of the Apes actor Terry Notary. He was the only actor who did not have to audition for his role, and it is evident why this was the case. The stand-out event of the entire film is carried on his crouched, animalistic back. I shall not ‘spoil’ this deeply uncomfortable scene, but I shall say this: having already winced at the realities of every day human hypocrisy, Notary’s 12-minute performance makes you want to leap out of your seat and scream “take your hands from in front of your face and for god’s sake, help.”