After its release and Palme d’Or award at Cannes, Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) continues to win a number of prestigious prizes all over the world. It has been screened at international film festivals, and critics as well as audiences are in awe. Yet, what is it that makes The Square so successful? Did the Palme d’Or trigger a chain reaction that caused a widespread hype? Or is it that the film actually touches on (socially) relevant issues; that it engages audiences by provoking thought and motivating debate? This article argues that it does exactly that.
In order to understand why The Square is so compelling to watch, it is, of course, interesting to take a closer look at its content and structure. For the purpose of this article, the film is best understood as a satire. Still, The Square is interesting in the way that it is not simply limited to one subject. While chiefly taking on the art world, the film is also a satire on cultural elites in general, as is illustrated in the first encounter between Christian (Claes Bang) and Anne (Elisabeth Moss) when she confronts him with a sentence from the museum’s website that is as convoluted as it is empty.
The Square exposes and ridicules the aloof exclusiveness of this kind of speech that is not confined to the art world but can also be found in some forms of academic discourse. Thus, on one level, the film explores the social hypocrisy of cultural elites as exemplified by Christian. This is wonderfully captured in the image of Christian’s Tesla which, while being an environmentally friendly car, is also a high-priced vehicle and therefore a status symbol. Similarly, the film invites us to laugh at Christian’s overtly vindictive attempts to solve the issue of his stolen phone: instead of going to the police, he locates his phone via GPS and leaves a threatening message in every letter slot of a highrise in the suburbs of Stockholm.
However, as mentioned above, The Square is not a typical satire, indeed it walks a fine line between creating satirical distance among audience and characters and facilitating empathy for them. Throughout the film it becomes apparent that underneath his art-world persona, Christian is also trying to do good. The story starts with him getting robbed because he chooses to help an apparently frightened stranger. After the hunt for his stolen phone has reached a dubious climax, he reflects on his behaviour and attempts reconciliation. This does not make him a flawless character, in fact, for Christian doing good seems to be as much a matter of appearance as of genuine awareness. Yet, it brings us as an audience closer to him and it is in these moments that we are able to go beyond spectatorship and recognise ourselves on screen. It is as though the satirical elements of The Square deliberately draw us in only to then turn the tables and confront us with our own hypocrisy as well as our attempts to do the right thing.
To add another layer of meaning, The Square shrewdly asks what doing the right thing actually is and if something like that is possible after all. It continuously confronts us with situations in which it is difficult to identify and do “the right thing”. There is, for instance, the Q&A with artist Julian (Dominic West) in which the obscenities uttered by a man suffering from Tourettes syndrome cause a rift between attendees. The exhibition accompanying the exhibition called The Square provocatively asks its visitors to decide if they trust or mistrust people; in front of the screen we are also invited to ponder upon which of the two we would choose. Scenes like these make us ask ourselves what we would do in similar situations and it is therefore that they tend to stick with us even after the film is over.
Hence, The Square is everything else but a feel-good social commentary or a preachy moral tale. It uses satirical humour in order to engage its audience; similarly to Ruben Östlund’s previous films, it raises questions and leaves us, as viewers, to reflect on them. It makes us recognise ourselves on screen and thus it acts as a social mirror in the best way possible. This makes for filmic experience that is not easily forgotten and might hold the key to its international success.