This year’s Palme d’Or winner came in like a breath of fresh air. Amidst the sea of serious, dark, topical films, Ruben Östlund’s THE SQUARE is a film that boasts something that was sorely missing from many of 2017’s hopefuls: the element of natural, witty comedy. Starring Claes Bang as museum curator Christian, THE SQUARE follows his seemingly peculiar day-to-day experiences in a uniquely captivating way. However, when his wallet and phone are stolen, even more hilarity ensues as he begins the voyage to retrieve them, while uncovering the boundaries between animal and man, and most importantly, art and commerce.
Despite the long run time and loose plot structure in the first half, the film manages to feel anything but episodic. The mood is perfectly planted in the audience’s minds from the offset, as Christian is interviewed by Anne, wonderfully portrayed by former Mad Men star Elizabeth Moss, in the opening scene. With slight comedic quips dripping in, the two discuss what art must be to be considered modern art, and how the art is chosen. It is a perfect set-up, establishing what will become the two halves of the film: comedy and assessment. The plot cleverly interweaves between the two throughout, also sewing in the overarching plot line of controversial artist Julien’s (Dominic West) new art piece for Christian’s museum. The shark is certainly not jumped on this, as this main plot subtly rears it’s head among Christian’s daily antics, dropping enough subtle clues to keep the audience informed. It’s a truly effective and smart decision, as it allows to the film to focus on it’s main provocative; daily, un-staged life.
While the comedy element is rather prominent, the film is neither relies, nor hinges on it. With so much complexity already consuming the plot, it does still make time for some improvised Flight of the Conchords-esque awkward humour, with Bangs’ relateably out-of-the-times Christian leading us through. It also allows the performances of the lead cast to breath, and expand beyond the fortunately limited serious moments. Their chemistry is delightfully honest, natural and real. The character of Christian is already a wonderful parallel in itself. When pressed with today’s culture, in a particularly great sequence in which he and co-worker Michael (Christopher Læssø) set out to teach the thief a lesson to the electronic beats of French music duo Justice, modern music, the modern art curator is bewildered, yet pleasantly surprised. His later encounters with Anne are even more natural, taking their time to develop in a naturalistic, relevant way. Terry Notary also gives a fantastic performance as Oleg, further pushing another key question THE SQUARE (both art piece and actual film) poses: is there a distinct, real difference between man and animal?
Is there a distinct, real difference between man and animal?
It’s not just the relationships in the film that are honest and relevant. THE SQUARE not only questions what art really is, but also questions what makes viral media. Any cliche getting in the way of this is cleverly avoided, as promoting Julien’s controversial, unique art piece in an artistically fulfilling way becomes the cornerstone of the main plot. Placing this question within the guise of day-to-day life for the main character is genius, as it couldn’t be further from being pushed in the audiences face. This plot, and the other, more comedy central ones, tie satisfyingly together in an ending that some may brand anticlimactic, but is actually an impeccable blend of answers, humour, and even more questions.
While the film focuses on the world of modern art, one that possibly couldn’t be more pretentious, the film somehow manages not to be, at all. Many films try to make some profound statement about the parallels between art and life, while THE SQUARE’s incomparable wit and satire manages this effortlessly, and before you know it, you have reassessed life itself, looking at everything it so cleverly puts into question in a new way.