Christian (Claes Bang) is a museum curator for contemporary art. The soon-to-be-opened exhibition is a piece about altruism and social solidarity by sociologist Lola Arias, and its tagline goes like this: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations”. During Christian’s preparation for the grand opening, his life starts falling apart from bad luck and bad decision making. As he struggles to juggle his work and personal life, he fails spectacularly at living up to the ideals of his exhibition.
Directed by Ruben Östlund, The Square is a Swedish satire on the contemporary art world (inspired by true events!), but more importantly, it’s about modern society’s relationship to social issues. And in The Square, they manifest in the form of homeless beggars scattered around every corner of Stockholm. They are the elephant in the room, and they were really only seen as they were under the omniscient gaze of the camera.
Although the platform I rented this movie from labeled it as comedy, The Square didn’t get more than a few chuckles from me out of the hulking two-and-a-half-hour runtime. The few moments of amusement were produced by absurd juxtapositions. These moments were lacking in edge (it’s rather mellow as a piece of satire), but they do get the points across. The only time The Square strived to reach Dr. Strangelove’s infamous “You can’t fight in here. This is the war room!” was at the beginning, where pedestrians ignored or dismissed an activist of unknown cause asking people whether they wanted to “save a life”.
Most of The Square’s social commentary was done with very little exaggeration; what the film presented was a clearer and closer look at reality, with the noise filtered out. Events which transpired in the story could very well happen in real life. The Square is a mirror that reflected parts of our society that very few films delved into: bystander effect, political-correctness as distraction from reality, and performative solidarity. And so Christian goes about his life, doing the bare minimum of helping out those who were in need.
In the center of various layers of social critiques stands Christian. He believes in good, he’s fond of the idea of being good, but he doesn’t like to exert himself too much. It is easy to give out when one has plenty, but he was barely holding his crumbling life together. Despite Christian’s shortcoming, he remains relatable. After all, he was the split image of the society at large. The protagonist gives all of us a lot to think about ourselves.
The Square tapped into some very thought provoking topics, but it could not stay engaging from start to finish; the pacing is uneven. The movie could definitely benefit from shaving off certain scenes and reducing the runtime. Sometimes the film could not decide whether it wanted to be a satire piece on the mass majority or character studies of just one person. Nonetheless, The Square is worth seeing just for refreshing perspectives.