It’s a mean fucking film. I know it’s supposed to be a satire of the bourgeoisie, the privileged elite, the art set. Those who have made the crucial mistake to be richer than everyone else, but continue to lead their public lives in a way so unrelatable to the rest of us. It comes up to rival Rick Alverson’s work in the level of sheer antipathy that it has for its subjects. That’s when I say in a small voice that sure, I sorta agree with it but I do actually like a lot of postmodern contemporary art.
We follow the work of a Swedish gallery in the run up to the opening of a new exhibition, Lola Arais’ The Square. The opening titles showcase the titular piece’s installation, complete with a plaque reading ‘The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.’ Everybody agrees that it’s an important work, one with an important moral message and a lot to say about the world. Being kind and just to the world, who could disagree with that? It’s the perfect message.
Then the film dedicates its two and a half hours to exposing these characters largess and hypocrisy. They are all assholes who have no idea. They’re all far too self involved in their own businesses to retain any sort of perspective on the world, except when they do at which point their selflessness becomes an indulgence. A luxury that they are able to afford.
We see it all the time in society. The art world just makes itself the easiest target. Think about intergalactic asshole Elon Musk who got so rich that he decided that public good needed to be reshapen in his image. Think about social media asshole Mark Zuckerberg on his poverty tour of the world, attempting to demonstrate that he is still remotely human. Or even charity asshole Bill Gates to whom social good is good so long as everyone knows where it is coming from. As to whether these people are human anymore, they are not. Their wealth has put divorced their lives and perspectives far from anything recognisably human.
But they aren’t pretentious though. They’re all at pains to be the right sort of wealthy, idealistic in a way that gets the world kneeling at their feet. The art community’s greatest sin is that they can get incredibly passionate about the wrong sort of thing. Of course, art means materiality and therefore physical ownership, which is clearly problematic within a capitalist society. But then I’d prefer the billionaire to buy a Rothko than believe he has the right over any single communal property or work.
Anyway enough about the rich, most of the time in this film we’re following Claes Bang, this museum’s curator, as he prepares for the exhibition. Early on he will get his phone stolen in a confidence trick that plays like a performance art piece, the flick lays out that parallel pretty clear from the start. He later will engage in a plot to reclaim the stolen items, then have to put up with the comic fallout that happens when his half-baked plan starts to go awry.
He balances this unfolding affair poorly with the mounting work commitments that fall upon him as the launch date nears. I’m often surprised watching people in films who appear to be complete idiots and bad at their jobs. Like, at one point they have a meeting with a PR team who are trying to build an advertising campaign for the exhibition. I know it’s a comedy but everyone comes up with some dumb suggestions and the rearrange another one for next week.
You’re supposed to in that situation be empathising with the dude in the corner rolling his eyes like, ‘haven’t we all been here guys, meetings eh?’ I’ve worked minimum wage long enough to understand that if I were that fucking incompetent I’d just be fired. I’m sure there are many well paid jobs in the real that are intensive and stressful. I cannot shake the feeling that any job that affords you a nice office which you’ve filled with artful arranged books is a piece of piss.
It’s in this seeming area of weakness that the cracks start to form. The movie is so single minded in its determination to attack it doesn’t really find a perspective to strike from. The film builds up this extended motif of homelessness, especially people begging for money but it doesn’t know what to do with them. They’re so often used as props for other characters to mistreat and abuse to demonstrate their callousness but are never allowed personhood in their own right.
There is a single time that a begging woman is allowed that, and the film’s takeaway is that she’s an asshole too. It’s all fair game. Maybe it is in that situation, but when you let your camera linger on depictions of these people pretending that they represent the world or something, capital’s inhumanity, you don’t get the right to rob them of their bodies.
It also happens in a scene where I think we’re supposed to be laughing at the fact that a group of high society folks are being accepting of an audience member with Tourette’s syndrome. Or maybe we’re supposed to laugh at the fact that they can’t abide his outbursts but are too polite to say anything. I don’t see an appreciable difference between the two. I know we’re not supposed to be on the side of the man though because we’re never allowed into his world.
Elsewhere the great Elizabeth Moss is doomed to paraphrase the ‘I swallowed your cum that means something’ monologue from Vanilla Sky as she struggles to get a man to commit to not being in a relationship. She’s sparingly used throughout the film, and has the presence to even feel like she coming out on top in this exchange cos she rides the dude so hard. At least she gets something, but it’s impossible to properly discuss societal power imbalances if you don’t properly consider the victims.
In the best scene of the film, our lead is finally humbled and forced to make an apology. He manages to be sincere for a few sentences before segueing into an embarrassing monologue about class consciousness, fully unaware of how patronising and privileged he is. It’s the blow that lands hardest, the perfect encapsulation of the venal cowardice of those who don’t see enough to understand that they are the blight on society.
The film don’t really got a solution for it. It’s just another side effect of its entrenched cynicism, the same sort of brocialist thinking that believes marginalised voices aren’t essential because, ‘everything’s just about class innit?’ It’s far from perfect, but it is inventive and cutting as hell. There’s few things as pleasurable as a well sharpened knife.
The Square is currently screening in UK cinemas and available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema.