Editor’s Note: The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. For more information please visit www.festival-cannes.com/en or follow the Cannes Film Festival on Twitter.
Four out of five award-winning feature films by Ruben Östlund premiered in Cannes in several sections of the festival. His feature Involuntary screened at Un Certain Regard back in 2008, Play won the Coup de cœur Prize in the Director’s Fortnight in 2011 and Force Majeure was awarded the Jury Prize at Un Certain Regard three years later. This year, Östlund returned to the South of France with his satire The Square to compete in the Official Competition for the first time and took home the highest prize of the festival: the Palme d’Or.
The idea behind The Square originated from an art exhibition, created by Ruben Östlund and Kalle Boman. It was first displayed at the design museum Vandalorum in Värnamo, Sweden. The exhibition explored the idea of installing a humanitarian sanctuary in the town centre of every city in Sweden. In this sanctuary – a physical square placed in the town square – equal rights and obligations would prevail.
Östlund’s film is set in the art world and follows Christian (Claes Bang), a successful and powerful chief curator of a contemporary art museum. He is in charge of an upcoming project, the installation of a physical square on the footsteps of the museum – The Square. To promote the museum’s newest piece of art, Christian takes part in an awkward interview with an American art correspondent (Elizabeth Moss) and attends a meeting to discuss a viral campaign with a couple of marketing experts. When his phone and wallet get stolen, Christian is completely distracted and obsessed with trying to figure out how to get it back. He and his assistant come up with a plan and embark on a mission. Thanks to an app, Christian can track down his phone and is led to an apartment building in a neighborhood he usually wouldn’t dare to visit. He decides to leave a note in every single mailbox of the complex. Eventually, he gets his phone and wallet back but ends up leaving a mess behind. A kid from of one of the apartments gets accused of the crime by his parents. The boy tracks down Christian to make him apologize not only to him but his entire family to clear up the misunderstanding. Within all this mess, Christian neglects his installation and makes the mistake of allowing the edgy PR agency to go through with a provocative campaign they came up with for the artwork. Once published, Christian and the museum have to deal with the aftermath.
The Square explores several issues including guilt and justice, egocentrism and empathy, individual obligations to society and sticking to a moral codex. While it often tries to tackle too many of these issues at once, Östlund’s film is a great character study of how the existence of a class system and the growing gap between the rich and poor divides us as a society and how people interact with each other and treat each other. One of the crucial sequences features a provocative art installation at a formal dinner, in which a performer acts as a wild animal, threatening to attack the guests if they don’t obey the rules. The performance pushes the boundaries (and goes even beyond them) and tests the attending guests as well as the audience as it quickly gets out of hand and escalates.
While it often tries to tackle too many of these issues at once, Östlund's film is a great character study of how the existence of a class system and the growing gap between the rich and poor divides us as a society and how people interact with each other and treat each other.