Wednesday, February 07, 2018

219. Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” (2017), based on his original story/script: A modern social satire on urban hypocrisy that will unsettle most viewers in different ways

 “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations” 
---Explanation written for an abstract art installation, a square ground in front of an upscale museum. The square is demarcated with white borders painted on the open cobbled space, on which pedestrians can walk

The year 2017 has thrown up three wonderful, thought-provoking films from three different countries, all receiving nominations for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar in 2018: On Body and Soul from Hungary, Loveless from Russia, and The Square from Sweden.  All three are weird movies, far removed from the style or content of a popular Hollywood blockbuster. Beyond the individual subjects of the three films, all three are tales originally conceived by their respective directors. The directors of such films need to get the status that one often gives to authors of novels, and not be restricted to the more obvious role of the director. Most of the commercial films are based on novels, plays or real events.  These are directors who deserve more respect and admiration from the public who goes to the movies. Few realize the distinction between directors who are truly originally creative and those who merely adapt existing works or build on incidents that have occurred somewhere.

The white glow of the square replaces
the conventional statue of a man on horseback
in front of the art gallery

Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s previous original screenplay and feature film Force Majeure (2014) had looked at a split-second instinctive reaction that jolts the tranquillity of a perfect nuclear family. It presented a situation that could have happened within the best of families. In Östlund’s next film The Square, the director’s carefully conceived original script is built around a white successful male named Christian. Though the film has no religious overtones—the viewers in Scandinavian countries and much of Europe will easily identify Christian as the average European,  financially secure, well-bred, courteous, politically correct and good looking. Now that’s perfect material for Östlund to use make the viewer look inwards within the familiar world of not-so-financially secure immigrants dotting the European demographic landscape. Östlund is a master of the unpredictable and makes very interesting tales/films out of unsettling yet believable situations.

"You have nothing" is the title lit up on the wall to describe
the abstract installation of heaps of gravel which gallery viewers
respectfully view from a distance

In The Square, the main character Christian is convincingly is played by actor Danish actor Claes Bang who deservedly won the Best European actor award for his performance in this film. He is the chief executive of an upmarket art gallery with very interesting abstract installations.  One of the current installations is room full of small equal heaps of gravel placed at intervals with geometric precision. The amusing title of the abstract installation is “You have nothing.” People look at the installation with incredulous and yet respectful demeanour while gallery security are watchful that the visitors do not tamper with the heaps.  Much later in another sequence, we see the hall with the same installation being cleaned with vacuum cleaners and some of the soil from one of the heaps being inadvertently sucked into the machine. The cleaner adjusts the heap to resemble the original. No words spoken.  It is for the viewer to understand the jibe of Östlund. Östlund watchers could recall the final sequence of Force Majeure where once again no word is spoken but the silence communicates more than words.

The controversial scene from a video clip to promote the gallery
and the controversy relates to the race of the girl

The Square is a film that would strike a chord with Europeans who have accepted immigrants into their society.  These immigrants beg for alms from rich Europeans such as Christian. In a preoccupied moment, he ignores the plea for alms. In a thankful, happy frame of mind the good “Christian” offers a meal to the needy woman in a fast-food restaurant.  But then note the script of Östlund: the immigrant dictates to her benefactor what specific meal she want to have and Christian obliges.

The film is a critique of the well-meaning people of Europe. On a busy street full of pedestrians, Christian comes to the aid of a passerby who screams for help unlike many others who do not. That well-meaning man is robbed.

Aftermath of an unplanned sexual encounter: Anne (Elisabeth Moss)
confronts Christian (Claes Bang)

Not many films have scenes of unplanned sexual encounters where the male uses condoms. Christian uses one and Östlund spins off an unpredictable yet responsible and thought provoking post-coital conversation on who should be disposing it without consequences, when the woman wants to keep/dispose it.

The film has more unusual Östlund situations:  a well-to-do female Caucasian journalist who lives with a grown-up chimpanzee as a pet.  A formal fundraising dinner has an actor who terrorizes the invitees acting as a baboon and even trying to rape a scared woman invitee in public view.  People who often rush to help the needy do not rush to stop the show which has exceeded its limits.  A clever, well-meaning scheme by Christian to get the robber who stole his wallet, cufflinks and mobile phone to return the articles anonymously without the robber identifying himself/herself  or getting into trouble with the law, spins off a new collateral controversy involving an innocent, immigrant kid. A split-second decision not to review a promotional video for his art gallery cascades into controversy that costs Christian his comfortable, high-paid job again because Christian is not averse to  accepting responsibility for a video he did not make but had merely hurriedly approved.

Christian (Claes Bang) explains one of the installations in his gallery
that helps visitors to choose a route to view exhibits.
Evidently more people visiting his gallery tend to trust others.

The Square can make you laugh. Then it will make you squirm. That’s the power of Östlund. Christian in The Square may be the well-meaning Caucasian male in Europe today. It could be you, if you put yourself in Christian’s shoes. On Body and Soul from Hungary, Loveless from Russia, and The Square from Sweden are examples of superb scripts and mature cinema, superior to most films made elsewhere in 2017. Holywood is waking up to this Swedish director and remakes of his films are likely to be made in USA.

P.S. The film The Square won the Golden Palm for the best feature film in competition and the Vulcain Prize for its Production Design at the Cannes Film Festival; and swept the European Film Awards winning the Best European film, best comedy film, best director, best actor, best screenwriter and best production design awards. Ruben Östlund’s previous feature film Force Majeure (2014) has been reviewed earlier on this blog. The 2017 films On Body and Soul from Hungary and Loveless from Russia have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access that review.) The Square is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author.