Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner ‘The Square’ rewards extreme patience

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The Square

FilmScene — opens Friday, Dec. 15

A performance art piece starts to go wrong. — video still from ‘The Square.’

At some point, Christian’s life must have gone very right. Well-heeled, well-groomed, well-respected, he’s the chief curator at the X-Royal Museum in Stockholm. He’s been moving easily through life, having mastered the ability to fake both sincerity and spontaneity. But The Square is not about things going right for Christian (played by Claes Bang). The movie follows him as his life slips out of his control.

The Square is the latest film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund. The two-hour, 22-minute satirical drama won this year’s Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, among other awards, and has largely been a darling of critics in Europe and the U.S.

To the extent this rambling movie has a structure, it revolves around three cries for help. The first, which is quickly revealed to be fake, sets the plot in motion. The second is disturbingly genuine, even though the threat that inspires it isn’t. The third is also genuine, and this time, the suffering behind it is as well.

The first cry for help happens on a busy Stockholm street. Christian responds to it, believing he’s heroically protecting a woman fleeing an abusive man. Actually, the whole thing is an elaborate setup to pick his pockets. Unexpected blowback from Christian’s poorly thought out effort to recover his wallet, phone and cufflinks leads to series of increasingly serious personal and professional problems.

The second cry for help happens as a performance art piece gets out of control. This time Christian is an ineffectual bystander.

The third cry for help is caused by a physical confrontation Christian has with someone who was injured (albeit it not physically) by Christian’s actions when he was trying to get back his pick-pocketed possessions.

The Square becomes truly compelling with the scene in which the second cry for help occurs. Terry Notary is remarkable as the performance artist who takes his performance much too far. Unfortunately, Östlund diminishes the scene both with a trite last few moments, and by never mentioning what happened during the performance piece in the rest of the film. Like its main character’s life, the movie is plagued by disjointedness and a failure to follow ideas to a conclusion.

But the bigger problem with The Square is how long it takes to get the second cry for help. It happens roughly two-thirds of the way through the movie. Between the first and second cries for help, the movie wanders from scene to scene — some of them funny, some not — giving the viewer’s mind plenty of time to wander, and even think about the movie’s flaws, mostly notably its baffling use of Elizabeth Moss.

Moss plays an incompetent TV journalist, who, despite not speaking a word of Swedish or knowing much about modern art, is inexplicably employed to report on the modern art scene in Stockholm. Even more inexplicable is the fact that Moss’ roommate in her Stockholm apartment is a chimpanzee. Moss never acknowledges its presence, and the movie never offers an explanation for why there is a chimp roaming freely in her apartment. There doesn’t appear to be any real explanation for Moss’ presence either — her character is vapid, not particularly interesting and in no way essential — other than the fact that having a recognizable face in the movie probably helped The Square find an American distributor.

The chimpanzee in the room no one talks about. — video still from ‘The Square.’

The name of the film is also the name of an ambitious, if vaguely defined, art installation at the X-Royal Museum. “The Square,” the installation, is supposed to force viewers to think about relationships between humans. The Square, the movie, has similar ambitions. The installation focuses on relationships between strangers in a public space. The movie, however, runs a gamut of human relationships: stranger/person in need; employer/employee (including patron/artist); partners in a causal relationship (or, in the case of one of the partners, a serious relationship); as well as, almost inevitably, people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. And just when a viewer might feel a sense of relief that Christian is a bachelor, so the film can skip over family relationships, his two previously unmentioned daughters suddenly appear.

As mentioned above, The Square is an ambitious movie that takes a very long time to become a compelling movie. Viewers willing to wait through the first two-thirds will be rewarded by its final section. The question for a movie-goer is whether they are willing to commit that amount of time to The Square. It’s a question Östlund seems to anticipate, since halfway through the movie, a pair of fatuous marketing consultants talk about the public not being interested in art, because the average attention span is too short. Judging by The Square, Östlund doesn’t seem to have considered a different possibility: sometimes artists, like the film’s performance artist, don’t realize their act has gone on too long.

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