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Ruben Östlund’s The Square Savages the Art World

Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West star in a satire on pretension and privilege.

Illustration by Aad Goudappel

A couple of times during Ruben Östlund’s The Square, we see a darkened gallery in a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, with a floor-to-ceiling video projection of the head and shoulders of a shirtless, muscular man. The man is growling, almost a whisper of a growl that induces a chuckle from the audience. The video is presumably an artist’s self-portrait, high-concept but also self-consciously silly. Later, at a gala dinner to mark the opening of a new exhibition, the man shows up in person. Still shirtless, he’s wearing black pants with a pair of braces on his arms. His name is Oleg, and he’s played by Terry Notary, an actor and stunt coordinator who’s worked on Hollywood movies such as Avatar and War for the Planet of the Apes. He walks around stooped over, stalking the dinner tables and behaving like a chimp.

Oleg’s performance bothers some of the dinner guests, who don’t like him petting their hair as if grooming fellow chimps. Then he comes to Julian, an American artist played by Dominic West. We’ve seen Julian and his work before. His installation at the museum consists of a few piles of gravel in front of a white neon sign mounted on the wall that reads: YOU HAVE NOTHING. Earlier in the film, he endures an onstage interview discussing the influence of Robert Smithson on his work while an audience member with Tourette’s syndrome repeatedly shouts “Garbage!” and other, more profane words. The dinner isn’t any more pleasant: Oleg the ape-man chases Julian from his chair and out of the dining room.

Soon after, the scene departs from the confines of realism. Oleg jumps on top of a table and turns his attention to a young woman in a pink gown. At first, he just plays with the woman’s hair. The dinner guests stare into their laps, ignoring him. But then he pulls her from her seat and throws her on the floor. As he assaults her, her cries for help go unheeded. Östlund lets this go on long enough that we think we’re about to witness a rape. But then a crowd of men descends, pulls Oleg off his victim, piles on top of him and beats him, and the scene is cut.

Courtesy of Plattform Produktion

The assaults at the gala dinner seem to transpire outside the rest of the film. But like The Square’s many other plots, the scene is concerned with what constitutes transgression: What is arresting, and what is merely good cause for someone to be arrested? The art world is a soft target for satire, not least because the art world’s appetite for satire of itself is limitless. Artists are constantly sending up tradition and the scene through their art, only to see the cycle repeat itself as their own work becomes staid and canonical. It’s unreasonable to expect any satire of the art world to be fresh, since knowingness is the first requirement to get in the door. The Square won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this spring not because it lashes the art world in a new way, but because Östlund delivers his lashings so exquisitely.

Oleg’s shenanigans are followed by another scandal at the museum: A video to promote a bloodless piece of conceptual art called The Square has gone viral, for the simple reason that the video is in bad taste. The Square itself is a cutout of cobblestones from outside the museum that has been transferred to a gallery inside; an artist’s statement says that the piece is a space of mutual care and equal rights. A pair of millennial marketers charged with drawing media attention to the piece see it as a tough sell. Reasoning that content about marginalized groups tends to be widely shared on Facebook, they hit on the idea of making a video of a blonde beggar girl walking onto The Square and then exploding.

The video garners hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, attracts reams of hate mail, and sparks heated debates about free speech and the attitudes of elite cultural institutions toward the poor. It leads to the resignation of the chief curator, Christian (Claes Bang)—the film’s handsome and well-intentioned but vain and beleaguered hero—because it was his negligence that allowed the video to be made: Preoccupied with his own personal and professional problems, he skipped the meeting where the marketing scheme was conceived.

In its study of muddled, liberal, middle-class, white masculinity, The Square recalls Östlund’s breakout international hit, the 2014 feature Force Majeure. There, the focus was on family: Tomas is on a weeklong ski trip in the Alps when an avalanche rolls toward him and his wife and children as they’re eating lunch. Panicked, he runs away without picking up his children, even as they scream for him in fear. His wife, Ebba, loses faith in him and their marriage falters, until she gives him an opportunity to play the hero on their last day in the mountains. The film is a tense and occasionally comic study of the crisis through Ebba’s revulsion at Tomas, his shame, and their mutual fear of splitting up. Östlund’s acute attention to minor marital slights and parental failings made it easy to think of him as a cinematic fellow traveler of the Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard.

In The Square, the crises that afflict Christian are more obviously farcical, and intersect with his professional life. On the way to work one morning, he comes across a woman being chased by a menacing man and helps her fend him off. The encounter gives him a rush and leaves him smiling—until he realizes it was a setup. Checking his pockets, he finds his phone and wallet are missing. Before the scam, we’ve just seen him ignore an earnest woman pleading with commuters to “help save a human life.” In exterior shots of the neighborhood, Östlund is constantly calling our attention to the homeless on the street—striking a fairly obvious contrast between the wealthy donors who fund the museum and the poor who surround it.

Christian gets his wallet and phone back by locating the phone’s GPS signal and sticking fliers in the letter boxes of all the apartments in the building. To his astonishment, it works. But he also gets a note from someone who, angry at being accused, demands an apology. This turns out to be a little boy, played with a fierce rage by Elijandro Edouard. He stalks Christian, who is eventually forced to fish the kid’s scrawled message out of a dumpster—a scene that, shot spectacularly from above, signals not so subtly that Christian has hit rock bottom. Christian films a message to the boy on his phone: He apologizes for being “prejudiced” with his flier scheme, and moans about society’s “structural” inequalities. But he soon starts to boast that he’s personally acquainted with one of the 291 individuals who collectively possess half of the world’s wealth. That guy could solve all the problems of the Swedish poor by himself, if he decided to. Even when Christian is apologizing, his vanity gets the better of him.

We already know, from the platitudes he spouts to donors about The Square, that Christian hasn’t thought through any problems of class. The way he thinks and talks about art is distorted by the demons of money and publicity. The film opens with Christian being interviewed by an American journalist named Anne, played by Elizabeth Moss. She quotes him a bit of pretentious boilerplate from his museum’s web site about the “topos” of meaning when an object is placed on view in an exhibition. It’s the sort of opaque language that the sociologist Alix Rule and the artist David Levine have called “International Art English”—a way of talking that serves “a community of users that it both sorts and unifies.” In reality, any reporter in a position to interview a museum director like Christian would probably ignore the promo copy and ask him savvy questions about the market. But Östlund isn’t doing realism. Christian explains Duchamp’s concept of the readymade to Anne, using the example of her handbag, which would become an art object if they put it on display in the gallery where they are sitting. She shrugs—end of interview.

Moss plays against type here as an apparent ditz. But when Anne takes Christian home after a dance party at the museum, she reveals unknown depths of weirdness: She’s the owner of a pet chimp, who roves freely through her apartment and makes use of her lipstick. Christian and Anne have a comic row over who should dispose of the condom after they’ve had sex. She later shows up at the museum and confronts him about the one-night stand: Was she just another conquest to him? Was he exploiting his position of power? Does he even remember her name? His way of copping to being a cad is also a backhanded compliment: He’s proud of making a catch of her.

The Square is full of gorgeous set pieces and well-tuned performances. Bang, in particular, manages to generate sympathy for Christian even as he behaves like a lout. As an essay on the art world, however, the film mostly confirms popular assumptions: that museums prop up a lot of work by second-rate artists by resorting to empty theoretical language; that many visitors think a lot of the work they’re seeing is shit but are too polite to say so; that many men in power are cads and frauds; that the art world makes a cynical pretense of concern for social justice when it’s completely indifferent to the homeless people down the block; that wealthy donors are rapacious capitalists who like to see artists behave like apes until the act crosses the line, in which case they’re happy to punish them.

We know all this, and it’s still funny. But The Square’s most dazzling scene takes place at a far remove from the museum—a sly and elegant counterpoint on Östlund’s part. It’s a cheerleading routine Christian takes his daughter to see after he’s been sacked. The cheerleaders are not sexualized or sent up. We just watch them throw each other in the air and catch each other on the way down. The camera zooms in on their faces, which are full of fear, intensity, and a kind of glory. Cheerleading may be the most naturally risible thing in the whole film, but it also simply is what it is, without, at least in Christian’s experience, a theoretical apparatus, a budget, or a jargon. It’s the sort of beauty you can’t find in a museum.