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Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Review: THE SQUARE is a masterwork of satire and class conflict

Ruben Ostlund's latest, The Square, hits on a topic that I think is key to understanding what divides society currently. Not to say this is the defining point of why the haves and have nots feel such direct antipathy towards one another, nor do I believe that other factors such as racial and cultural differences should be cast aside when analyzing social strife. But I'm often perplexed when I think about people who have told me how scared they were to drive into certain neighborhoods or how people I've been in a car with have automatically locked their doors and rolled their windows up when we roll through those same areas. I'm perpetually befuddled by this, but it's a real fear that people of a certain socio-economic class have of their neighbors who are not quite as fortunate as them. 

Class conflict is a real, driving divider within our country, and as Ostlund himself formulates within his own essay on the topic on-screen, it exists just as openly across the Atlantic.

Of course, this isn't all he aims to do, it's really just the defining thesis. To no surprise for those who were big fans of his 2014 festival stunner, Force Majeure, The Square is equally funny in that sort of quick-witted and satirical Armando Ianucci-esque way the filmmaker is ever so adept with. But rather than delving into a sharp parody of the political, as one might expect given the larger theme at play, The Square utilizes the trappings of high art as its target for...not quite ridicule, but more a sense of deconstruction. It's a film that squints its eyes a good deal at the extravagances of modern art, while also wielding its potential as a weapon for making greater statements about the world at large. This is a finely honed machine that hits a perfect blend of thoughtful and intellectual commentary, while also being impossible to pry your eyes away from, minute by minute.

This year's winner for the top prize at Cannes, The Square opens with its protagonist, a Modern Art museum's curator named Christian (Claes Bang), coming off a potential bender on his office's couch, straight into an interview with a journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss). He's immediately asked a question regarding a recent art installation's write-up of which he was responsible and it's clear right away from his rambling, basically incoherent answer, that he has no idea what he's talking about. The interview ends awkwardly and the film moves on from there, but that opening moment acts first volley for Ostlund, as the doubting journalist attempts to cut through the "intellectual" art expert's bullshit, for lack of a better term. It's a beat that sets the stage for the conflict to come within Christian's next few days.

On his way to the office the next day, Christian falls for a scam, and both his cell phone and wallet are lifted. At the same time, he's in the midst of the opening of a new art exhibition entitled "The Square", with it's concept being that inside this 8 x 8 square on the ground, we are all on equal footing and no request for assistance can be refused. A beautiful sentiment, and one that Christian completely ignores as he becomes all consumed for the hunt for his lost possessions, which he tracks to a lower-income apartment building across town. But of course, rather than attempting to knock on individual doors to discover who may have lifted these items, he decides to throw flyers in the mailbox of each apartment, blindly accusing everyone of the theft, hoping to get the thieves to fess up. This in turn, makes life ever so much more complicated for the strangely likable, but also troubled member of the bourgeoisie as more and more the events that occur in the fall-out of all of this consume his mind and workday life.

Ostlund digs deep into making Christian a full-fledged, breathing figure, and while we spend the majority of the film's time with him, there's never a moment you want to turn away. Much of this should be attributed directly to Bang's performance, for sure the best I've seen the this year from a leading actor. But Bang imbues this potentially loathsome figure with a sense of humanity, and often, relatable emotions, while not putting you on his side. It's a towering realization, covered under the cloak of slight looks, gestures, and a healthy dose of absurdity.

That latter notion may be where some viewers become a bit challenged by what Ostlund's aims are. There is a particularly quizzical moment where, previously only seen in glances prior to, Terry Notary appears as a real-life art immersion experiment portraying a gorilla in the wild. Even after viewing that sequence in full and its wild conclusion, it was difficult to get a firm grasp at first on just what the filmmaker was trying to say. Of course, taken in retrospect, it's another piece of the larger puzzle regarding the idea that we as a society are not only a prejudicial species, but also one that is also inherently afraid of assisting others lest we in turn come to harm. The Square is filled to the brim with these types of moments that drag at what we perceive as the providence of only the highly educated, and in turn reflects that very same thought process onto the viewer itself. "Yes, it is very funny that 20 piles of dirt is considered art, but what does that say about us that we think that?", and our conflicted feelings about Christian throughout are equal to that task. 

It's also a film where those piles of dirt get accidentally demolished by a janitor, and Christian won't give his condom away to a sexual partner to throw away for fear she'll use it to impregnate herself. His fears about those he considers of a lower class stratification are loathsome, but because of how well we get to know him, it allows us to at least understand how that kind of perspective is formed at a sort of nascent stage, and how in turn it can be rectified for the betterment of all. Needless, to say, nary a moment is wasted, no matter how humorous, and there are plenty of those if that's what you're looking for.

It's the kind of movie-making I can't stop thinking about and taking apart, much like this year's earlier mother!, but unlike that film, there's no doubt that I'm absolutely in love with this one. Make something this incisive and cutting a priority as soon as you can. I'm fairly certain it's the best film I've seen this year.

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