It seems appropriate that a film that revolves around a modern art curator would, itself, resist interpretation. Like the art that it intends to satirize, The Square is difficult to define. In fact, one cannot even say that it is the story of one person or one story, although it may seem that way at first. The film, at first, seems to focus on Christian (Claes Bang) and the museum he curates. Life seems to be going well for Christian. He is rich, handsome, and secure in his power and privilege. The museum is prepping to open a new exhibit, also titled The Square, which is a simply lit square in the plaza in front of the museum. However, as Christian explains to the brash, young ad men hired to promote the exhibit, it is supposed to mean something more.
‘The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations’
It is the ramifications of this phrase that Christian and the other rich, upper-class citizens that he associates with must confront throughout the movie. Stockholm is home to not just to the wealthy, but also countless beggars and the homeless. The Square, both the film and the art piece, challenges the rich to look at their own privilege and how they are abusing it, even as they pretend to be generous.
Fortunately, the director Rueben Östlund never lets the pretensions of his subjects slow the movie. Instead, he constantly undermines Christian’s and others’ attempts to be serious by incorporating the entire screen. There are constantly visual and audio jokes in the margins of the frame. Even as Östlund focuses his camera on Christian, the true aim of the film is to highlight all in the world that Christian is missing. Christian and his fellow art-lovers may espouse to be more sophisticated, more evolved than those around them, but they, too, are subject to the whims of outside forces that they can’t control. By employing a greater focus, Östlund considers subjects that are harder to skewer than simple art-world pretentiousness. The film ranges from classicism to racism to urban poverty without restraint. It is hard to criticize a film for lacking focus when its ambitions are so high and are so often successful. The Square leaves many threads hanging, all of which extend beyond the reach of the theater. Östlund is aware that many of the viewers of the film share much with the characters within the film and thus, realizes the importance of continuing the discussion even after the end of the film. Although it certainly wanders at points during its two hours and twenty-two-minute runtime, The Square is thoughtful and beautiful filmmaking that never lets the viewer forget their culpability. Through its sounds and visuals, it constantly invites us to think beyond the scope of one movie. There are greater problems to be confronted in the world and within ourselves. The Square may have defined limits, but our empathy should not.