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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“With every table in the dining room occupied and me, the only waiter, neglecting the needs of a good fifty patrons, I approached Roth. Holding out Balls as a numbness set into the muscles of my face, I spoke. “Sir, I’ve heard you say that you don’t read fiction anymore, but I’ve just had my first novel published and I’d like to give you a copy.”

“His eyes lifting from his iPhone, he took the book from my hands. He congratulated me. Then, staring at the cover, he said, “Great title. I’m surprised I didn’t think of it myself.”

“These words worked on me like a hit of morphine. Like two hits. It felt as if I was no longer the occupant of my own body. The legs had gone weak, the ears warmed, the eyes watered, the heart rate increased rapidly. Barely able to keep myself upright, I told him, “Thank you.”

“Then Roth, who, the world would learn sixteen days later, was retiring from writing, said, in an even tone, with seeming sincerity, “Yeah, this is great. But I would quit while you’re ahead. Really, it’s an awful field. Just torture. Awful. You write and write, and you have to throw almost all of it away because it’s not any good. I would say just stop now. You don’t want to do this to yourself. That’s my advice to you.”

“I managed, “It’s too late, sir. There’s no turning back. I’m in.”

“Nodding slowly, he said to me, “Well then, good luck.”

“After which I went back to work.”
~ Julian Tepper

“Any form of physical or sexual assault is a very serious matter, potentially a legal matter. But I’m also wondering, what about having some kind of “extreme asshole” clause? I know lots of people who have been abused verbally and psychologically. That’s traumatizing, too. What do we do with that?  It takes a lot of energy to be an asshole. The people I admire most just aren’t interested in things that take away from their ability to make stuff. The people I really respect, and that I’ve met who fit this definition, have a sense of grace about them, because they know that there is no evolving and there is no wisdom without humility. You can’t get better if you behave in a way that shuts people off. You can’t! You don’t have all the ideas necessary to solve something. You don’t! I’m sure if you spoke to Harvey in his heyday and said to him what I just said to you, he would believe that he accomplished all that he had because of the way he behaved.”
~ Steven Soderbergh