By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Review: THE SQUARE

THE SQUARE

When Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure debuted in Un Certain Regard in 2014, its rapturous reception and subsequent Jury Prize made some wonder why it wasn’t in the Competition to begin with. Often this happens to directors relegated to the Festival’s sidebar—women in particular—but with The Square, a late addition to the festival’s Competition line-up, this slight has been remedied. And it just may go the distance.

The Square is a right-angled triangle—a film with three sharp, pointed edges and a very long ending that’s too rigid for it to turn a corner and assume its final shape. But as the follow-up to a film about the social contract, as well as the bystander effect, Östlund has made something hilarious, frustrating and very clever.

We follow Christian (Claes Bang), head curator of a contemporary art museum, as he and his team try to fashion a media campaign that will ignite interest in a new installation: “The Square,” an illuminated quadrangular that, once you enter it, becomes “a sanctuary of trust and caring,” according to its artist manifesto. “Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.”

The idea that the social contract would hold up—indeed, be embraced—in a small public enclosure is intriguing, the exact type of “gotcha” scenario that its creator could point to and use to comment on human nature, were something to go horribly wrong.

But why do we need an installation to ask us to maintain the social contract? Take someone’s phone getting stolen in a public plaza—a theft that happens to Christian at the top of film, setting off a chain of events that has you laughing and scratching your head (and with some excellent soundtrack decisions, banging it, too).

Like a 142-minute episode of Swedish “Seinfeld”—if Jerry ran a museum—The Square is interested in asking “what if?”, a phrase that opens many of the existential questions pertaining to art’s intersection with society. And it’s a playful jumping-off point for Östlund, whose bitingly satirical script dances in and just outside of that box, always circling back through a series of roughly connected vignettes to a central idea: Can art go too far?

Can a filmmaker intentionally write an ending so grating it ruins the rest of the movie? Should a performer be stopped because their performance becomes violent and unsafe? By its very artistic ambition, does the performance require its audience to stop the artist from becoming violent?

As this film makes its way through the festival circuit, attentive audiences will find these questions are subtly, intricately linked.

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“The sad and painful truth is that pretty much everyone in this town knew who Harvey was. I have had long talks with my most liberal friends. Did we know he was a rapist? We didn’t. But did we know that for decades he has been offering actresses big careers in exchange for sexual favors? Yes, we did — and make no mistake, that is its own kind of rape. And did we all — or did any of us — refuse to do business with him on moral grounds? No. We ALL STAYED IN BUSINESS WITH HIM. I have never done business with Harvey but I can tell you with certainty that I would have — because I was recently approached by a film festival he sponsors. They asked me to submit my short film for their consideration and I did it without thinking twice. I am a dyed-in-the-wool feminist and a vocal one at that. So why didn’t I think twice? Because this entire town is built on the ugly principals that Harvey takes to an horrific extreme. If I didn’t work with people whose behavior I find reprehensible, I wouldn’t have a career.”
~ Showrunner Krista Vernoff

From AMPAS president John Bailey:

Dear Fellow Academy Members,

Danish director Carl Dreyer’s 1928 film “The Passion of Joan of Arc” is not only one of the visual landmarks of the silent era, but is a deeply disturbing portrait of a young woman’s persecution in the face of the male judges and priests of the ruling order. The actress Maria Falconetti gave one of the most profoundly affecting performances in the history of cinema as the Maid of Orleans.

Since the decision of the Academy’s Board of Governors on Saturday October 14 to expel producer Harvey Weinstein from its membership, I have been haunted not only by the recurring image of Falconetti and the sad arc of her career (dying in Argentina in 1946, reputedly from a crash diet) but of Joan’s refusal to submit to an auto de fe recantation of her beliefs.

Recent public testimonies by some of filmdom’s most recognized women regarding sexual intimidation, predation, and physical force is, clearly, a turning point in the film industry—and hopefully in our country, where what happens in the world of movies becomes a marker of societal Zeitgeist. Their decision to stand up against a powerful, abusive male not only parallels the cinema courage of Falconetti’s Joan but gives all women courage to speak up.

After Saturday’s Board of Governors meeting, the Academy issued a passionately worded statement, expressing not only our concern about harassment in the film industry, but our intention to be a strong voice in changing the culture of sexual exploitation in the movie business, already common well before the founding of the Academy 90 years ago. It is up to all of us Academy members to more clearly define for ourselves the parameters of proper conduct, of sexual equality, and respect for our fellow artists throughout our industry. The Academy cannot, and will not, be an inquisitorial court, but we can be part of a larger initiative to define standards of behavior, and to support the vulnerable women and men who may be at personal and career risk because of violations of ethical standards by their peers.

Yours,
John