When the Swedish royal family denied Ruben Östlund the chance to shoot a few scenes at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, he reportedly decided to take revenge by making a few changes in the script. Part of the story would still take place at the Royal Palace, but in a near future where the Swedish monarchy has been abolished. The palace is now the site of a modern art museum. In Östlund’s view, the King really had no right to deny him access to the palace because it belongs to the people. It’s hard to sympathize with the filmmaker in this case as the Royal Palace must be one of the world’s most accessible, already housing four different art and history museums.
But Östlund knows how to get attention, not one to shy away from controversy. The Square shows the director gaining maturity in his role as storyteller.
Christian (Claes Bang) is a Dane working in Stockholm as the curator of a museum located in what used to be the Royal Palace. On his way to work one day, his phone and wallet are stolen in a very imaginative way. The phone has a GPS tracker; together with his Danish colleague at the museum, Michael (Christopher Laessø), Christian traces it to a poorer suburban residential building. After a few glasses of wine, they compose a letter demanding to have the phone and wallet back. The intention is to put copies of the letter in every door of the building, hoping that one of them reaches the thief…
A real-life square
Before there was a movie there was a real-life ”square” in the Swedish town of Värnamo, a symbolic safe spot with an inscription that says, ”The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations”. The idea was conceived by Östlund and a producer friend of his, Kalle Boman, but it actually started with the making of the director’s Play (2011), where he became fascinated by the real-life background story, children robbing each other and getting away with it because adults never intervened and the young victims never asked for help. Crucial themes that keep reappearing in The Square are trust and respect for each other, mixed with humorous jabs at the art world and the media. In earlier films, Östlund worked more or less with tableaux and then started moving into a more linear kind of storytelling. In The Square, we follow Christian primarily but many of his encounters with the other characters are scenes that resemble tableaux.
Östlund has this remarkable talent for finding either themes or ideas or merely simple details (sound effects included) in each and every scene that comes across as annoying or disturbing. At the same time, this is a funny movie with many absurd and true aspects of life. For instance, there’s that memorable scene where Christian and Anne (Elisabeth Moss) argue over a used condom; the reason has everything to do with trust. And there’s the scene most likely to be remembered by audiences, where the museum has hired a performance artist (played by Terry Notary, who’s done mo-cap work on the Planet of the Apes and Hobbit movies) who goes apeshit at a fancy dinner. The fear and crowd mentality triggered in that scene are familiar to any Östlund fan, but still spellbinding to behold.
Östlund’s first international film is overlong, but stays relevant to its themes, entertains without preaching and has a terrific cast.
The Square 2017-Sweden-Germany-France-Denmark. 142 min. Color. Produced by Erik Hemmendorff. Written and directed by Ruben Östlund. Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel. Production Design: Josefin Åsberg. Cast: Claes Bang (Christian), Elisabeth Moss (Anne), Dominic West (Julian), Terry Notary, Christopher Laessø.
Cannes: Palme d’Or. European Film Awards: Best Film, Comedy, Director, Actor (Bang), Screenwriter, Production Designer.
Last word: “I spent a lot of time traveling around, going to contemporary art museums, when I was writing the script. Every time I ended up in a different city I’d visit the art museum to see what was going on there. I must say, it’s very hard to tell the difference between them. You know, they have this piece of sign in neon, and they have these big pieces of metal standing in the middle of the room, or whatever. I felt a little bit like how Duchamp must have felt when he put a urinal in a museum. Then it was a provocation, but today it’s not. It’s like a ritual or a convention that is just repeating itself. It has lost the connection with what’s going on in the outside world.” (Östlund, Deadline)