By Mónica Delgado

In a passage of Visage Villages, Agnés Varda and JR visit and play inside the Louvre, affirming in this visit a necessity for the art as inspiration and as an engine for life. Varda stops in the mimetic faces painted by Arcimboldo as an act of contemplation and celebration, in a registry that she and JR recover with their portrayals throughout France. I mention this scene in particular, because this sense and use of art in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, presented in the Official Competition of Cannes 2017, has also a transformative intention, but posed by the Swedish filmmaker in a more conceptual way, in moments precise and concrete, and in others, diffuse and ambiguous. The Square poses a special relationship between art and men: Is art any good nowadays to transform society or people?  -the dream of the old vanguards.

The “postmodernity” in the artworld, that which fades out in the air of museum and galleries, and which has transformed the artworks into commodities and malleable objects, is the unit of measurement which Östlund uses to realize a x-ray of the Swedish high class citizen, before the social realities of migration and different inequalities that share a starting point: the distrust for the other. Through this premise, Östlund clings to his lead character, an artist and museum director, who is the thread that links different situations. He, driven by his eagerness to launch a new “installation” called The Square, by an Argentinian artist, Lola Arias, hires the services of a creative ad agency. This artwork, which is nothing but a square drawn in the floor of a plaza, contains a plaque that signals that the space guarantees rights and the demand of duties for a harmonic coexistence, having as an essential element the trust for the other. Thus, the Swedish filmmaker, through this concept of “the bubble” builds an imaginary of the struggle between trust and distrust, which is evident in some scenes and somehow buried in others. Trust after a sexual act, trust in work relationships, trust before unexpected acts, for example. The transit from distrust, of the loss of a humanist sense towards its recovery is the main issue dealt by The Square; though the style chosen by Östlund isn’t by any reach perfect: there are lots of loose ends (in style, in characters, in argument).

In The Square, as in Force Majeure, Östlund applies a sardonic humor, sometimes grotesque, that questions, a style reminiscent of the ludic elements in Roy Andersson’s cinema. But this comparison is small comparing Östlund cinema to the hilarious situations that Andersson builds towards this “cult burgouise” that is still encapsulated in an elitist vision of the social and the arts in times of cultural diversity and social media. Something that is remarkable, though, is the way that Östlund describes the environment of galleries, art critics and cultural managers, making fun of the conceptual terms of modern art, of the current art canon, and the frivolity of the curators. But all of this art world (portrayed in an exceptional way through a scene where a violent performance occurs in a benefic dinner with millionaires) is in sum the artifice which the filmmaker uses to tell his moral of trust/distrust, since all the film structure dances around situations where this message is displayed in a very eloquent manner.

There’s an animal analogy that crosses different moments of the film: the ape before the men and woman, of the wild that pretends not to be, or the repression of this human side which is freer. And that allows, in all its strange qualities, for the best scenes of the film.

At the end of the day, The Square leaves clear, that despite the emptiness of actual art, there’s a possibility that it may transform people. The installation that give the film its title will serve its purpose, or at least changes the perspective of some characters into the way of trust, in a country which seems pretty secure, but only on the stable condition that privilege brings in some social classes.

Director: Ruben Östlund
Script: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Claes Bang, Emelie Beckius,Linda Anborg, Sarah Giercksky, Jan Lindwall, Christopher Læssø, Peter Diaz, John Nordling, Annica Liljeblad, Henric Wassberg, Denise Wessman, Marina Schiptjenko.
Plattform Produktion / ARTE France Cinéma / Coproduction Office.
Sweden, 2017