At this year's film festival in Cannes, Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund was awarded the Gold Palm itself for his latest film The Square. With that, it became as official as it can get that he is not only one of Scandinavia's, but also one of the world's, most important and most interesting filmmakers.
However, that does not mean that The Square is his strongest film to date. But it is certainly a fascinating and far from uncompromising piece of film art, which is experienced both as a continuation of Östlund's filmography as a whole, and of the aesthetic course change he made with his previous film Tourist.
Codes and compliance. Östlund first directed ski films and then two documentaries, before debuting feature films with the tableau-based and documentary Gitarmongo i 2004. This tabloid style he cultivated in the subsequent feature films The involuntary (2008) and Play (2011), as well as in the short films Scene #: 6882 from my life (2005) and Event at bank (2009). And not least, he established here perhaps his foremost distinctive character as a filmmaker, in the form of a sharply observed and clumsily humorous exploration of social codes and associated conformity press.
Through the aforementioned films, Östlund emerged as a kind of heir to the compatriot Roy Andersson, both with his static and controlled design language and his partly witty examination of the Swedish people's soul. Although with the significant difference that Andersson's tableaux are theatrical and almost surreal in their design, Östlund relies on a much more real-life and authentic expression.
More conventional. With his previous movie Tourist Östlund moved on to a somewhat more conventional cinematic expression, with more frequent clipping between different camera settings and image sections. With that, he could recall as much about another Cannes favorite, namely Michael Haneke – albeit with a great deal more love for his characters than his Austrian colleague. In addition, Östlund has never let go of the humor (painful as it may be), which has not exactly characterized Hanke's cinematography.
Tourist is also the film in Östlund's portfolio with the clearest idea, in which it portrays a family father who impulsively runs in cover as a snowfall rages against the alpine hotel's terrace – without thought of the wife and children he is with. A painful and at the same time laughable situation that forms the basis of the film's study of the modern Scandinavian man, after the snow avalanche turns out not to hit the hotel anyway. This premise is so precise and smart that the "pitch" is almost better than the movie itself, though Tourist so certainly is both thought provoking and entertaining.
The film uses the art environment as a starting point for a more general social satire, and a discussion of social hierarchies in Scandinavia.
Male Study. Östlund's latest film The Square is also about a modern, Scandinavian man: Claes Bang plays Christian, the Danish director of a larger contemporary museum in Stockholm, whose life is thrown out of balance as he falls victim to a clandestine pocket theft (where he is drawn into a situation that apparently is about a woman threatened by a fierce man). Eventually, he takes some drastic steps to get his stolen assets back, and with it comes The Square a more traditional dramaturgy than Östlund's earlier films. Here we have a main character who faces ever increasing resistance and who towards the end gets an acknowledgment of what priorities really matter in life.
Satire. Theft was also central to Östlund's film Play, a film that both challenged and played on our prejudices against young people with minority backgrounds, and which directed a certain shift towards so-called political correctness. A similar discussion is to be found in the new film, with its frequent touches of begging Roman people and their focus on various forms of social inequality in the Swedish vernacular.
The Square is also Östlund's most obviously satirical film to date. The satire here is clearly in a cartoon-like way, at least got signed associations with the French serial creator Lauzier's socially satirical stripes from the 70s and 80s. This is an exercise that is not easy to perform on film, as the media's anchoring in the specific and specific can make the satirical message appear obscure or even banal. Östlund is so determined in this danger zone when, for example, he lets us hear a street signer from a relief organization urging passersby to join us and save a life, while in the picture we see a homeless person no one seems to agree with – least of all the defendant from it charity.
Social hierarchy. Östlund never, however, decays to easily bought parodies on what can pass as modern art, or similar cheap points at the expense of the contemporary art world. Instead, he uses this environment as a starting point for a more general social satire, and a discussion of social hierarchies in Scandinavia. The museum and its staff serve here as an example of an environment that would like to appear open to new cultural impulses, but which is just as fully a closed social sphere.
This desired openness is effectively put to the test in a memorable key scene, where a stiff dinner party is to attend to a performance that slips into the very unpleasant, and that extends credibility reasonably far as regards the audience's lack of intervention. A very impressive staged sequence, which nevertheless loses some emotional impact because – unlike most of the film by the way – we do not experience it through the main character Christian.
The satire here is evident in an almost cartoonish way, an exercise that is not easy to carry on film.
Room for goodness. The title The Square is taken from an artwork his museum is working on exhibiting, which consists of a marked route on the ground. This square should be a free zone where everyone is equal – a kind of room for thought and goodness, one might say.
However, the work's message is hard to relate to the museum's PR agency, which is keen to break through the attention wall with something that will be spread virally. The two young marketing advisers are seen as somewhat caricatured, but at the same time a rather striking parody (although Kristoffer Borgli's hybrid feature film dribs is a notch more refined in satirical portrayal of this type of launch strategies). Perhaps it is also not without irony that Östlund lets these consultants post about how people's attention does not last longer than a few minutes, in a movie that has even close to two and a half hours of playing time.
I am more uncertain whether the female art journalist (played by Elisabeth Moss) is intentionally portrayed with a male gaze, or whether this character is just poorly developed. In any case, it is perceived as somewhat odd that it is she who (in a transferred sense) gets undressed by Christian, when she confronts him after they have shared a bed one night.
Lack of redemption. When the work The Square never gets any special place in the movie, it is probably meant to say something about how little room there is for thought and goodness in the Scandinavian society. This is also in line with the fact that the film is not really about art, but about goodness.
But even though our main character eventually learns of his wrong choices and wants to correct them, his story nevertheless does not receive complete redemption. Again, this is perhaps to show how difficult it can be to perform good deeds, but the film's eventual message in this way is somewhat obscured by the fact that it is mainly coincidence that gets in the way of the possible bots.
The lack of clear message may also be due to a more general feature of the film's chosen form of satire, which is better suited to diagnose than to launch a cure. There is however much to admire The Square, which aptly, intelligently and pleasantly addresses a number of problematic aspects of society and the time we live in. But once it is so sharp and precise in its questions, it is easy to feel cheated for answers. And with that, one can also question how deep the film's analysis really is.
The Square opens Bergen International Film Festival September 26,
and premieres at Norwegian cinemas September 29.