The coronavirus has placed our dreams and aspirations on hold while replacing them with worry and concern, forming a square – so to speak – around our individual lives. One of the greatest tools at our disposal, given the weight of the current situation, is our ability to remain grateful and appreciate our circumstance, particularly relative to those in greater need. Perhaps more relevant now than ever, Ruben Östlund’s The Square (2017) brilliantly distills a series of unfortunate events intoxicated with equal parts laughter and sobriety into a simple message about humanity’s response to crises.
Counting one’s blessings is a near-obligatory response, both from the viewer and Christian’s (Claes Bang) messy life as curator for a Stockholm art museum, especially after one critical oversight on a promotional video jeopardizes his entitled persona. The Square’s politically incorrect punchlines make it difficult to laugh but impossible to resist, as nightmares of progressive politics gone wrong awaken a call for action in the hearts of audiences – at least after realizing that we need not put ourselves in his flashy dress shoes. Questions soon begin to form as to whether responding in a certain way to the film would look appropriate or justifiable. It is during this process that viewers slowly but surely catch onto Östlund’s tactics by understanding that such thoughts pale in comparison to actually doing the right thing.
Christian, aptly named in connection with a religion synonymous with thanksgiving, somehow perverts the concept of dramatic irony by embracing individual qualities that distort his potential for generosity. Many other characters in The Square share this disposition where the intention to give is entirely contingent upon privilege, remaining insulated from responsibilities save the grandeur of their self-image. Yet, despite all the onscreen ego, the Swedes are just like everyone else. Östlund justified his optimistic stance on the human race in an interview, saying: “One reason we’re successful is because when we see inequality, we’re provoked to do something about it.”
The Square refuses to stop at this personal level, continuing its exposé of sorts in the interpersonal realm with the museum’s exhibits illuminating socially-relevant issues. The film’s centerpiece, an installment where aristocrats at a dinner party are rendered helpless by an apish intruder, serves as a masked psychological experiment of the bystander effect and the selfish need for consensus before action. No wonder those involved are all members of high society – we often have less to give even when we have more to offer. The gravitas of the situation supports Östlund’s darker take on humanity as what he dubs “herd animals,” for “when we’re confronted with a threat, we tend not to move, hoping the threat takes someone else.”
If a film that admonishes nobility’s unsympathetic nature could win the top prize at Cannes, where some of the world’s most aristocratic viewers gather to stun on the red carpet, there must be some glimmer of approval in The Square after all. Fortunately, underneath the film’s seemingly flawless polish that can only be described as Ikea simplicity, a hidden layer of gratitude remains. After ditching his pretentious demeanor in favor of a humbler outlook, Christian finally learns that the best PR for a museum curator lies simply in acknowledging that appraising one’s greatest collection must accompany its bestowal upon others.
The less-than-noble struggle of saving face by satisfying and preserving the expectations of others is a through-line for Östlund’s works such as 2014’s Force Majeure. Yet he and Claes Bang personify this freedom that accompanies the confidence that there is nothing more to prove. We can all breathe a sigh of relief, however, for both are committed to several imminent projects even while keeping their pride on the shelf. With Östlund unveiling his upcoming Triangle of Sadness and Bang adding The Burnt Orange Heresy, The Last Vermeer, The Northman, and Dracula to his extensive résumé, both artists embody the incredible range of possibilities afforded by a perspective of gratitude.