Any Questions?

Ruben Östlund wants to have a few words with contemporary culture in his Palme d’Or–winner, The Square, about a modern art curator teetering on the edge

By Michael Koresky

T he conceptual art installation that gives Ruben Östlund’s The Square its title is no needling interactive performance à la Marina Abramovic; neither is it a James Turrell–esque light immersion nor a Paul McCarthy bait-the-bougies horror show. Nevertheless, the tiny quadrant, installed into the concrete plaza in front of the X-Royal Museum in Stockholm, is a provocation. The brainchild of an Argentinean artist named Lola Arias, whose work is said to be inspired by “relational aesthetics” and who is crucially never seen in the film, “The Square” is intended, in its oft-repeated, lofty explanatory text, as “a sanctuary of trust and caring . . . within its borders we all share equal rights and obligations.” Four by four meters of utopia, then. As the Museum’s suave curator and most public face, Christian (Claes Bang), explains, “Its strength lies in its simplicity.” True enough: the idea of the piece would seem to function in marked contrast to its physical parameters. Here is where to stuff all the world’s human charity. But there’s nothing there. The emptiness of this unprepossessing little square is both its hope and its desolation.

Upon this by-definition blank slate, Östlund will build his precarious tower of a social critique, in which warring elements—narrative, visual, aural—are increasingly balanced upon one another until it’s about to topple. The film’s caustic jokiness and particular milieu might initially lead one to believe The Square is a satire of the contemporary art world. The X-Royal isn’t even real; what you see on screen is Östlund and architect Gert Wingårdh’s digitally composited version of Stockholm’s 13th-century Royal Palace with an enormous glass rectangle awkwardly perched on top in a presumed parody of the trend jump-started by I.M. Pei’s classical-modernist Louvre incongruity. Inside, visitors, following arrows offering the choice between “castle” (the medieval part of the building) and “art exhibition” (the new, sleek wing), frequently only get to the latter by accident.

Despite such gags, Östlund doesn’t seem to be after such low-hanging fruit as the pretensions and desperations of contemporary-art scenesters and curators. Like “The Square” itself, the literal parameters of the environment come to seem inconsequential, or at least circumstantial; the modern metropolitan art world of the West provides a particularly strong ballast for an exploration of economic disparities, racial and gender inequity, self-righteous political hand-wringing, and the intellectual flatulence of liberal cosmopolitanism. This would all seem to fall in line with recent trends in art-film satire, from Roy Andersson to Birdman, with their self-consciously stringent visual methods, purposely stylized performances, and elevation of sociocultural irritations to the existential, yet The Square is an altogether looser affair, finding ways to shimmy around its stuffy setting rather than feeling trapped in it. Furthermore, all of these broader topics function as satellite inquiries to the types of investigations Östlund has also been after in his prior features, including Involuntary (2008), Play (2012), and Force Majeure (2014): how our daily behaviors and responses are ruled or inhibited by forms of psychological makeup and social conditioning.

T here are potential limitations to Östlund’s approach, foremost a reliance on a wry clinical abstraction of character, in which the people he puts on screen seem to have little agency, so ruled are they by their creator’s social psychologist instincts. Is he truly exploring or merely diagnosing? Involuntary, a series of interwoven tales inspired by Stanley Milgram’s experiments in social pressure and conformity, often dramatized in static shots, felt like a more cautious Michael Haneke movie; the black and white kids in Play were constant victims, both of the deluded, racism-addled world their parents helped perpetuate and of their own half-formed lizard brains; and the dad in Force Majeure, who triggers a breakdown in the family unit due to his own shark-like drive for self-preservation, felt more like a symbol for manhood than an actual man. This didn’t dilute the power of the film, but it did make one wonder what Östlund might do with a character who’s given the room to display multiple facets of personality in professional and familial spheres as well as more generally social and environmental ones.

The Square’s Christian is our purposely frustrating answer, and if he at times feels as much of a rat in an exit-less maze as any of Östlund’s other characters, he also is written and performed with enough contradictions to make his anxieties and blind spots seem oddly sympathetic. This despite the fact that his predicament—his constant butting up against the expectations and hypocrisies of our contemporary moment—is almost entirely self-made, one poor decision after another leading to a critical turning point in his life. With his debonair lankiness, precise oval spectacles, and enviable full head of hair that somehow seems even more attractive when its strands fall out of place, Christian is a nonprofit’s dream, presentable to a fault, the kind of guy whose talent resides mainly in his ability to say the right thing at the right time. Östlund even takes care to demonstrate Christian’s adeptness at false modesty while making a speech at a fundraising event, getting folksy by spontaneously pocketing his cue cards and taking off his glasses—a move we have just seen him rehearse in the bathroom mirror.

Christian’s smoothness is X-Royal’s secret weapon, and Claes Bang is Östlund’s: whereas Force Majeure’s square-jawed everydad Johannes Kuhnke was most noteworthy for his bland, blond anonymity, brunette Bang (and boom, that name!) is necessarily charismatic, his traditional, almost vampiric handsomeness purposefully distracting from the storm clouds gathering around him. It is important to note that Christian, in addition to being male, is white and straight—privileges increasingly seen as liabilities within such progressive Western liberal circles as this. When we first meet Christian, that perfect machine, that cyborg of effortless cool, he is already beginning to malfunction. In an interview with Anne, an American journalist played with brilliantly modulated faux-naïveté by the always disarming Elisabeth Moss, he cannot answer what should be a fairly simple question regarding some confounding text on the museum’s website about the difference between exhibition and non-exhibition, site and non-site art. He can barely clarify, falling back on the old saw “What makes it art?” and haplessly name-checking Robert Smithson. (As we come to know more about Christian’s at-times lax approach to his work, it seems increasingly probable that he never vetted this text at all.)

It’s fitting that Christian is an interview subject in The Square’s first real scene, since nearly everyone he comes in contact with throughout the film will lob questions at him, many of which he is unable or more often unwilling to answer. (The film’s first spoken line is “Are you awake?” to which Christian can only respond with another question, a muffled “Huh?”) He is regularly questioned not just about his work but also his personal life, most hilariously and ambiguously by Anne, with whom he has a one-night stand he may or may not come to regret. Just as in her interview with Christian at the film’s beginning, Anne is always testing his weak spots and feeling out the limits of his trust. In a scene of postcoital non-tenderness, he refuses to give her his used condom to discard, and won’t say why (“Tell me what you’re thinking!” she demands in bemused astonishment), and in a later confrontation at the museum, Anne serves up a battery of interrogations about their tryst, from the general to the specific, only growing more intense the less willing and forthright Christian is in answering them: “And then what happened?” “Why is it so hard for you to say it?” “What did it mean to you?” “Do you have sex with a lot of other women?” “So what’s my name?” That this latter scene is set against the backdrop of a towering, Jenga-like assemblage of chairs, shaking and groaning and aurally simulating collapse, makes Christian’s inability to respond all the more urgent, as well as absurd.

Envisioned as a symbol of social entreaty, a pleading for humanitarian values pathetically segregated to a single box stenciled on cobblestone, “The Square” itself is a space where charity can only take place in response to a question. The Golden Rule rules in the boundaries of “The Square” (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), but the person inside it has to ask for help, and we have to respond if asked. One wonders if those who would take part in “The Square” are the same people who every day wander past the city’s preponderance of homeless begging for help. As a gesture of altruism, the installation may seem initially like a swipe at a contemporary secular culture often perceived as apathetic, a performative piece of social experimentation clearly doomed to failure. Yet Östlund would seem to believe in “The Square”’s value: the concept is based upon an actual exhibition Östlund presented in the southern Swedish town of Värnamo for two months in 2015. Devoting so much time to discussing “The Square” when talking about The Square comes to feel fruitless, though, since one of the film’s great ironies is that we never see its unveiling, nor do we ever get to see anyone interact with or react to it. The actual piece is a complete abstraction. The talk around “The Square”—pitching it, marketing it, affixing meaning to it—is all there is.

Instead, Östlund, who prefers narratives made up of many moving parts, with episodic sequences that jut out in strange, unexpected ways, presents two main story threads, reflecting Christian’s dovetailing personal and professional crises. His downfall is first triggered following an incident in—of course—a city square, in which a woman’s panicked cries for help turn out to be the initial ruse in an elaborate pickpocketing scheme. (Confidence men, who rely on the trust and will of the easily duped, are among proper society’s most damaging forces, turning Good Samaritan–ism into a sign of weakness.) After his simultaneous anger at being robbed—of his wallet, cell phone, and even, he claims in impressed amazement, his cuff links—and the embarrassment of being duped, he enlists the aid of his junior staff to help track the stolen phone’s location. (In a pointed visual, all of them, first revealed as they huddle around their white, male boss, are women and/or people of color.) When Michael (Christopher Læssø) suggests an elaborate plot to both exact revenge and potentially get back his possessions, Christian, as eager to impress the hipper, younger subordinate as Michael is to prove his commitment to his superior, takes him up on the misbegotten scheme. Soon, this self-made upstanding member of high-art society is scurrying through the halls of a low-income high-rise in the middle of the night, putting threatening notes in all the apartments’ mail slots. The image of Christian illuminated by dusky sensor lights as he makes his way through the dark, accompanied by the muffled sounds of crying babies and barking dogs, powerfully conveys the character’s unthinking yet willing entry into a kind of moral twilight. As the film continues, a chain reaction from his petulant act of retribution results in nothing less than the gradual eroding of the socioeconomic boundaries he has scrupulously maintained and which has held aloft his position of power and privilege.

Meanwhile, so distracted is he by the foreboding consequences of his own schemes that he grows negligent at work, ignoring crucial marketing meetings for the launch of “The Square,” and therefore tacitly approving the direction suggested by a pair of boneheaded white male millennials out for viral content at all costs. The result of this is a hilariously hyperbolic social media shock-spot that might have been devised by Scrooged’s heartless TV mogul Frank Cross—or perhaps Darren Aronofsky at his most exclamation point-y. That the ad hinges on—and attenuates its suspense around—the death of an innocent child is not an incidental joke: Christian’s interactions with children form the spine of the film. It’s only revealed partway through that he’s the divorced father of two young daughters, whose angry squabbles with each other seem partly the result of his obliviousness to their needs. The girls also bear increasingly disturbed witness to their father’s desperate attempts to curtail the rising tide of anger unleashed upon him by a prepubescent boy who feels furiously wronged after receiving one of Christian’s accusing letters. How Christian responds to this child, a return-of-the-repressed figure who’s capable of machine-gun-like verbal assaults, sends him to his near breaking point, forcing him to finally answer for himself. Although, as modern man is wont to do, he ends up talking in circles, making excuses by blaming society for the inequities he perpetuates.

Östlund throws a series of nasty curveballs at Christian, but perhaps none compare to the one he throws at the audience late in the film. At a glitzy fundraising dinner in the X-Royal (the pre-reception step-and-repeat vaguely boasts the words “Art Awards,” but we never know the context for the evening), Christian, debonair in a tux, promises his moneyed audience a very special performance by Russian artist Oleg Rozojin. “If you show fear the animal will sense it,” a Brit-accented voiceover announces against recorded jungle sounds. Played by Planet of the Apes and Hobbit motion-capture actor Terry Notary, the shirtless, brawny Oleg strides into the posh setting, embodying the gait of a gorilla, heaving himself on tables, breaking wine glasses, pawing at faces and hair, hooting and grunting with chest-thumping bravado, and even chasing out a pompous Julian Schnabel–ish artist played by Dominic West. What is initially merely awkward grows incrementally violent; the stuffed shirts become immobilized with fear at this expression of uncontained primal id. The scene has become the film’s iconic marketing image, but it’s its least narratively integrated setpiece. In perhaps Östlund’s most daring gambit, he doesn’t prepare viewers for this display and, afterward, doesn’t inform us of its consequences. Like those in the dining room, we’re left to wonder what we just watched, who in the room was in on it, and what parts of it were planned. It simply hangs in midair, a debacle or an unqualified triumph. How long does civility trump instinct? Is the final turn to violence exactly what the artist intended? Or is it only Östlund who’s making the Buñuelian point that underneath our formal wear we are savages waiting for the slightest excuse to be unleashed?

Christian is as much of a performance artist as Oleg Rozojin; he’s just less aware of it. Despite the fact that he functions within the boundaries of civilized society, his behavior is as much an indication of unchecked power and arrogance as any king of the jungle beating its breast. Christian’s downfall is rendered complete during a climactic scene set at a press conference following a major marketing humiliation for the museum, which will undoubtedly prove an ironic boon for the actual exhibit of “The Square.” Here, Christian is chastened by indignant representatives from both the PC brigades and the freedom-of-speechers, flip sides of our contemporary outrage culture. The fact of man’s existence isn’t enough to justify that existence, and Christian is not exempt. He has finally become his own work of art, served up for public consumption just in time for him to be put to pasture. After nearly two-and-a-half hours of wild, zigzagging narrative turns and setpieces, Östlund ends Christian’s story with a whimper—the most surprising choice of all. Away from the spotlight, the mediocre work of art known as Christian is no longer on display, and The Square peters out purposefully. Christian’s time may be up, but with one final gesture, Östlund leaves enough hope that he may not have to be put in storage just yet.

Closer Look: The Square opened on October 27.

Michael Koresky is the Director of Editorial and Creative Strategy at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.