Performative Cinema

Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s new film The Square is an ambitious, provocative and exasperating work that will cause debate wherever it plays. The film won the coveted Palme d’Or in Cannes last year, and it’s not hard to see why it beguiled the jury. Dealing with issues of artistic expression, political correctness and the nature of censorship, it’s a film designed to discomfort – exactly what you might expect from the director of 2014’s Force Majeure, which explored the emotional aftermath of a family caught up in an avalanche.

The film centres on Christian (Claes Bang, The Bridge), a middle-class museum curator in Stockholm currently overseeing a major project called ‘The Square’, a literal space where people can come together and interact. Yet after his phone and wallet are stolen in public, Christian begins to unravel, tracking the thieves down to a low-income house project where he arrogantly distributes flyers into every letterbox demanding his possessions back.

Bang is a compelling performer and certainly deserves to be seen on the international stage in light of this. The Square, however, never quite marshals his obvious talents in what emerges as a series of vignettes than a tightly plotted whole. Some are hilarious – like the post-coital scene between Christian and Anna (Elisabeth Moss), an American TV journalist who beds him after an interview, as she coyly says she will dispose of the used condom. But dispose of how, we’re left wondering?

There’s also a remarkable, if far too long, sequence at a black-tie museum dinner involving a staged piece of performance art, as a torso-bearing man (played by Terry Notary, famed for his motion capture work on the recent Planet of the Apes films) goes feral in front of the shocked guests. It’s another moment where Östlund succeeds in making us (and his extras) uncomfortable, asking us to question just how far art can go.

What does it add up to? It’s hard to pinpoint, despite a 142-minute running time that’ll give you plenty of space to contemplate its multiple meanings. Is civilised society fraying at the edges? Are we just one step away from our animal selves? Can art be used to elevate our baser instincts? Maybe it’s all these and more. Or none of these at all. That said, Östlund is a brazenly confident filmmaker; whatever he does next will be received with great interest.

The Square opens in cinemas on 16 March via Curzon Artificial Eye. For more information, click here.

James Mottram

1. Still from The Square. Courtesy of Curzon.