The Square (Review)

When you walk into your local art house theater and sit down to watch the film that won the Palm d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival you can’t help but have specific expectations, assuming you're film geek like myself. I’ve experienced this feeling for over two decades and have rarely been greeted with the experience I had while watching The Square. As a film event, there is an inherent respect that comes with a world-renowned film festival giving a film their stamp of “best film“. Ever since I’ve had access to a car, 1993, I’ve watched all but three Palm d’Or winners in a theatrical environment. The Square met and exceeded my expectations unlike most previous winners. The expectations portion of that sentence is what is key, as that’s what I call 'personal baggage'. The personal baggage and expectations that I carry with me into a film has little to do with what that film actually is and has everything to do with what that film has attached to it - culturally speaking.

Think about the last time you watched a film that was critically revered and what you were hoping to experience as you went into that film. When you have the weight of the Cannes Film Festival behind the film saying that it is the best film it screened in that particular year, which puts a very heavy burden on that film. Throughout the last two decades of watching these films in an art house or repertoire environment, very few films have met my personal film geek expectations. However, The Square not only met those expectations, which in and of itself is saying quite a bit, but it also exceeded those expectations. I realize that by typing that previous sentence I am now adding to the hype and expectations of anyone reading this who hasn’t seen the film yet. However, I am very confident that The Square is capable of not only sustaining the hype I am adding to, but, still exceeding any expectations I set up.

The film is about the life of a curator at a very large national art gallery in Sweden. Yes, there are scenes that take place in his private life and there are scenes that take place within his work life. Yes, the film is about 2 1/2 hours long. Yes, not every single scene is going to make narrative sense on the first viewing. However, as an audience we are dealing with a filmmaker who is confident and assured in his storytelling abilities. Upon reflection and discussion I believe that all of the scenes in this film are relevant to the central themes that it not only spells out for the audience in very subtle ways, but also spells out for the audience in very obvious ways.

The first thing that needs addressed when analyzing The Square is the running time. I don’t mean so much that this must be addressed as a topic, but I personally feel that this is the first hurdle to get around when recommending this film to anyone. As someone who works full-time at an art house theater, this is the main topic of conversation amongst regulars that I know would enjoy this film. For some reason, in the age of binge watching on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or whatever, the running time of the film is still a sticking point that regular patrons of art house theaters need to get over before they will commit to a film. I spoke to every patron I could while we were showing Martin Scorsese's Silence and told them they had to see the film. It boggles my mind to hear people complain about the running time of the movie when it breaks the two-hour mark, people that I have had previous conversations with about watching all the episodes of Mindhunter on Netflix over the course of two days. It just seems absurd to me that people are turned off by any feature film that breaks the two-hour mark. If it's a great story, I don't want it to end. If the story is compelling and the characters are interesting then I don’t understand why anyone would care how long a story lasts. Personally, I could’ve watched The Square for four more hours.

The Square gives its audience the tools to understand what it’s doing in the first scene. And art reporter is interviewing the curator, the previously mentioned main character, about the nature of art and the role museums play in the curating of art. Questions of 'what is art' and 'how far should art go' are brought up immediately and these terms are regularly addressed throughout the narrative, often in hysterical fashion.

One particular scene in this film, the Rosetta Stone of the narrative, comes about halfway through. There’s a large reception at the art gallery in which there is a performance art piece that happens amongst all the wealthy and well-to-do patrons of the arts. A narrator comes over the loudspeakers and tells everyone how to behave in the virtual jungle they’re about to enter. Do not engage the animal, do not look him in the eyes, do not appear threatening etc. Then, a shirtless man enters and proceeds to act like a monkey as he moves throughout the crowd of well-to-do dinner guests. The question that immediately pops into the audiences' mind is how far is this going to go as a scene, but, more importantly as a performance art piece. The answer to that question is uncomfortably far, which is what art should do. This is why this particular scene is the key to this film and, consequently, is on the poster for the film. Everyone that’s a guest is so overly polite to the point where several hundred people allow one person, one monkey, to control everyone in the room. The man portraying the animal in this scene targets a fellow artist right away. An artist we’ve already been introduced to. He then moves on to harass and assault several different people who are also guests. He eventually is stopped after he drags a woman out of her seat by her hair.

As I was watching this scene, I kept thinking of slavery. There’s a point in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, that I remember discussing at length with friends of mine. The central question that Django proposed to us and I think the scene in The Square also addresses is, when a certain group of people outnumbers another group of people, who are the oppressors? At what point does that larger group rise up and defend themselves? This scene in The Square goes on for such an uncomfortable length that I began thinking the same thing. There are hundreds of dinner guests and yet only one person participating in an art performance piece that is making everyone uncomfortable.

At what point do the all the guests say 'fuck it' and end of the piece because it is that uncomfortable? There is a socially accepted objectivity that is maintained, but only because of the environment this scene takes place in. If the same man/monkey was assaulting people at a park, would it still take as long before someone stopped him? And on top of that, perhaps it’s the point of the performance piece to draw people into action and the longer they refused to take action says something about those people as human beings. This exact thought is infused throughout the main characters journey outside of his professional life. His wallet, keys and cufflinks are stolen in a public pickpocket scene that happens at the beginning of the film. His inaction and inability to deal with the theft in his personal life are central to the themes and problems in his professional life.