The Square is an intriguing, thought-provoking, and thoroughly engrossing look at a panoply of timely concerns: white male power, entitlement, class divides, the disconnect between the haves and have-nots, poverty, prejudice. It is also about a host of timeless considerations: compassion (and the lack thereof), communication (and the lack thereof), conformity, cowardice.
From the trailer, I thought it would be a skewering of a sleek, impossibly handsome cad set against a sleek, impossibly ludicrous contemporary art world.
But it isn’t. The film, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, is far more subtle, far more nuanced. The man at its center, Christian, is not a cad. He can in fact be conscientious and kind, but he — like pretty much everyone else in the movie — makes bad choices of action and worse ones of inaction. Set against a backdrop where art is embodied by a clattering mound of stacked golden chairs and precisely aligned heaps of gravel, the inability of Christian — and his colleagues and the larger society as well — to see, hear, and connect with what is real and important is made devastatingly clear.
The choice to set the film in this milieu leads to rich satire. Years ago, we went to a museum, I think in Baltimore, which was showing, among many other items from the ’60s, a Yoko Ono installation. It was a hammer and nails, a participatory piece, inviting the viewer to hammer a nail in the painting block. But there was a big sign that the museum had put up next to it that said “Do Not Touch.” I thought it was the funniest, most clueless subversion of artistic — albeit flaky — intent I had ever seen.
And right on a par with the misguided artistic statements populating The Square. A crisis ensues when an overzealous cleaning crew inadvertently vacuums around one of the gravel heaps: an exhibit visited, may it be pointed out, only fitfully and never enthusiastically. And the eponymous, relatively tiny square — earnestly described by its creator as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” — is part of the larger square fronting the museum, where ranks of homeless daily petition heedless passersby.
There is a cool, clean look to the film, informed in large part by this art world background. But it is also the look of our contemporary modernity: crisp, sterile demarcations of white, black, and color tidily masking the muddy gray ambiguities of real life. This is where we all are, not just the art world cognoscenti: pretending that truth and reality can be cleanly, clearly, and completely divided into this and not that, right and wrong, good and bad, light and dark, us and them.
The movie is about far more than sending up contemporary art and its patrons and promoters. It’s about the whole of contemporary society, with its inability to see the authentic in a world of posturing and performance, of conformity and excessive and (in the movie, literally) explosive feints professing to shake up the status quo.
The Square may take on more than it can manage, introducing myriad plot threads, characters, and complexities. But when it connects, it does so with shattering effect. The performance art cum gala dinner at which a man portraying an ape threatens the complacency of the donor set is incredibly powerful — and highly unnerving. All told, an extremely smart and — yes — touching film.