The Square: Strange, But “It’s Art”

A ‘performance art piece’ in which a man acts like an ape at a fancy dinner party

If a self-proclaimed lover of the arts doesn’t acknowledge how pretentious the world of art can be, they just might be a total hack. As the winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor, Ruben Ӧstlund’s The Square is a dissection of the human conscience, served with a dose of mockery directed at the pompous attitudes of the artistic world.

As the curator of an art museum in Stockholm, Christian (Claes Bang) finds himself involved in a string of events that leads him to start a new exhibit: “The Square”. Though this set of lights in the pavement outside the museum is sold as a societal neutral ground where “we all share equal rights and obligations”, things don’t exactly go according to plan. Christian is, with notable exceptions, someone with generally good intent, but who is ultimately a fool perceived by the characters of this film as having malicious intent. For example, his art project, The Square, though designed to ask the world why a space of true equality can’t be larger than a piece of pavement, winds up becoming hugely controversial because Christian neglected to attend a meeting with the museum’s advertisers. This is a film that consistently asks its audience to reevaluate their preconceived notions on what makes an action good or bad through scenarios whose domino effects result in some generally peculiar moments and interactions. 

However, The Square does try to pack as much as possible within its running time, and so the movie can be a little overwhelming to think about by the time the film concludes. Thinking back on the film’s narrative as a whole, the movie feels like it might’ve started out as a set of ideas for a television show than it does as the blueprint for a film’s story. As a result, there’s several different messages that, while well told, might’ve been explored further had they been part of a satirical TV program, and didn’t need to worry about melding into a cohesive, two-hour narrative. As a result, some might see this movie as a little bit pretentious, despite that the film’s trying to poke fun at the art world’s unavoidable stumbles into self-gratifying, ego-stroking pompousness.

Ultimately, The Square is an interesting film that tries to ask its audience as many questions as it possibly can, and while successful in execution, can feel overwhelming by the time the movie is over. Watching this movie with a group of friends, you’ll either find yourself talking over ‘what if’ scenarios for hours after, or you’ll shrug, remember it as a little bit pretentious, and move on.

George Ibarra is a Senior at Florida International University, pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree in English, along with a Certificate in Exile Studies.