Tuesday 27 March 2018

Situationism: "The Square"

With Lars von Trier in retreat after his mildly shaming Nymphomaniac, the Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund has assumed the mantle of Scandinavia's merriest prankster. Östlund's early films (2008's Involuntary, 2011's Play) were often tremendous provocations, their Hanekean formal rigour leavened by their maker's evident amusement at the ways people rub up against one another, and often rub one another up the wrong way; part satirist, part sociologist, this director made like a Desmond Morris with firecrackers and a whoopie cushion hanging out of his back pocket. It is a delight to report that Östlund has gone up in the world without losing any of his mischievousness. The Square, which arrives on our screens almost a year after claiming the Palme d'Or at Cannes (there's apparently been a recut), has name actors, a sheeny look, and wades waist deep into a convincing recreation of the contemporary art scene, but never forgets what it came there to do - namely, skewer its scarf-tossing gatekeepers, and the kind of doubletalk, blustering and general BS Östlund has surely encountered himself on his passage through the ranks.

The concept may be lofty, but the film hinges on an everyday event. Ahead of the launch of an especially noble, civic-minded exhibition - marked by the installation of a neon-framed square in the courtyard promising "equal rights and responsibilities" to all those who enter - Stockholm museum director Christian (Claes Bang) loses his smartphone. With this essential tool's disappearance, an entire, carefully curated life comes to unravel. We first find our handsome, refined fortysomething hero napping on his office couch; thereafter, Östlund does just about everything else a director can do to catch a character with his guard down. The gallerist is put through a number of awkward positions with an American journalist (Elizabeth Moss) who tears strips off his reputation as a dashing blade; he has to scramble to contain the damage caused by a disastrously ill-judged viral video campaign; and, after attempting to retrieve his cherished iPhone from a tower block, he finds himself tailed at every turn by an angry kid who shapes up like the aggrieved paperboy stalking John Cusack through Better Off Dead.... The neon square, returned to time and again, increasingly presents as the image of a safe space; the problems begin in the messy world beyond.

I had some fears going in that The Square might just have been a snotty or snarky assault on its subject, like a chi-chi upgrade of 2009's Boogie Woogie, that poverty-row disaster that cocked (or half-cocked) a snook at the Shoreditch set. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that Östlund has far more specific ideas as to what he likes and what he wants. We get a close (and clearly informed) study of how exhibits are installed and galleries laid out (one room has been filled with small mounds of rubble - it could be a statement on the futility of existence, but it could also be evidence of Östlund's efforts to undermine the gallery foundations); we're shown what goes on behind the scenes and after hours, the type of meetings museum directors have to sit through, the crisis management they have to enter into whenever someone takes their eye off the ball. In short, this art film is fully and unmistakably engaged with art as a world (and as part of the world): its appeal, which places it not far along the cultural spectrum from a project like TV's W1A, is that of being handed the all-access laminate that might carry us beyond the "Employees Only" door to observe some generally controlled and controlling people crossing the neat and tidy lines they've drawn for themselves. (This being Sweden, those lines are aspirationally neat and tidy.)

Beyond the square, Östlund finds other, equally resonant visual motifs. Given the sheer number of narrative banana skins this director scatters around these locations for Christian to slip on, it's no surprise that naked or half-naked apes should feature so prominently. For one, the incident in which Christian loses his phone seems to trigger some primal urge in this otherwise civilised individual, setting him to fucking, fighting and doing everything shy of flinging his own poop around. Yet an actual chimp monkeys incongruously into shot in the journo's apartment, just after Christian has talked her into bed. (One curious, little-discussed effect here: Bang's accent, which gives him an air of sophisticated authority - Lord of All He Curates - whenever he's speaking in his native Swedish, but downshifts to a washed-out rocker's Estuary English in his scenes with Moss, repositioning this character as shifty in the extreme.) Consider, too, the pointedly Russian performance artist (Terry Notary) who uses an award ceremony to leap alpha-like onto the tables, beat his chest and start grabbing the trophy wives - a tremendous setpiece, with a slightly iffy punchline. 

It's not the only place in this 150-minute push for greatness where you can feel Östlund pushing too far, and undermining nothing but his own credibility. I get that someone with Tourette's might attend an artist's Q&A, but they'd surely have the wherewithal to excuse themselves once their yelps reach the pitch they do here; it's a pretty cheap laugh. Perhaps, like von Trier, Östlund will himself cross a line in the attempt to push our buttons, and we'll have to recant or walk back a few of our earlier enthusiasms. Equally, though, he seems far more alert to the social implications of his own work: you see it in his scrupulously mixed casting - a feature that dates back to Play, with its needling interracial conflict - and in the way he succeeds in very precisely describing the privilege around Christian (good choice of name, that) without ever seeming to succumb to its gleaming artifice. Here, The Square exudes that responsibility von Trier's The Idiots wilfully shucked off with its undergarments. For now, let's agree that Östlund is a wildly talented disruptor, deftly placing one detail in every scene - a crying baby in the boardroom, a beggar in a 7-Eleven, a mechanical clatter muffling a terse lovers' chat - specifically to nag at his characters, then sitting back and waiting for someone to snap. The humans are this gallery's real exhibits: cloistered in such luxury and comfort it's a shock whenever they warp, chip or crack.

The Square is now playing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream here.

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