The Square – a Movie Review
Yesterday, because of vociferous urging by our youngest son, we finally broke the bad habit we had slipped into of not going to the theatre to see movies. We saw the Swedish film, The Square. The film was the first Swedish film to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and swept the European Film Awards with six wins in all the categories for which it was nominated – Best European Film, Best Comedy, Best Script, Best Director (Ruben Östland), Best Actor (Claes Bang) and Best Production Design (Josefin Asberg). I thought that it was one of the very best films that I had ever seen.
Yet no other star in the film, such as Dominic West and Elisabeth Moss, was nominated for an award. In the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, Critics Choice Awards representing 300 critics, and said to be the best predictor of Academy Award winners, the film received only one nomination, for best foreign film. There were 17 films nominated for more than one award ahead of it, only one of which I had seen, a terrific film directed by Dee Rees called Mudbound. But the latter did not even get one nomination. The Square was also nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, an almost sure thing if it is selected for predicting the winner of the Academy Awards Best Foreign Film Category.
Given that record, how can I insist that The Square is one of the best, not just foreign films, but one of the best films that I have ever seen? Further, for this year’s nominations in both the Critics Choice Awards and the Golden Globes, though almost all the films nominated are on my list of must see movies, I have viewed virtually none of the top ranked films. How can I be trusted to rank what is “best” when I have not seen the vast majority of the nominations? That is the cost of getting out of the habit of going to see films in movie theatres. I lose status and credibility as a film commentator. Look at the magnificent list ignoring for the moment possible errors in the compilation:
Critics Choice Awards Golden Globes
The * indicates the films that I have seen.
The Shape of Water 14 7
The Post 8 6
Three Billboards Outside
Ebbing, Missouri 6 6
Lady Bird 8 4
Call Me By Your Name 8 3
The Greatest Showman 3
I Tonya 5 3
Battle of the Sexes 2 2
Coco 2 2
The Disaster Artist 1 2
Ferdinand 0 2
Get Out 5 2
Molly’s Game 0 2
*Mudbound 2 2
Phantom Thread 3 2
All the Money in the World 0 1
*The Florida Project 1
Darkest Hour 1
Blade Runner 2049 7
The Big Sick 6
Phantom Thread 1
A Fantastic Woman 1
BPM (Beats Per Minute) 1
There are four other films Submitted for Oscars for Best Foreign Film that I have also not seen: In the Fade (Fatih Akin – Germany), Loveless (Andrey Zvyagintsev – Russia), First They Killed My Father* (Angelina Jolie – Cambodia) and A Fantastic Woman (Sebastíán Lelio – Chile).
Further, if I can throw more distrust your way about my commentary, when it comes to assessing the character and content of the film, I, as you will see, seem also to be off base. The film is advertised as a critique of postmodern art and postmodernism in general. It is that, but only in a minor key. A judge for an award said: “This is an intelligent, subtle and funny film that raises important issues: how to help the poor, how to deal with the media and attract them by creating a shock factor. And I also fell for the lead actor!”
The film is subtle, sometimes uproariously but also mordantly funny, and Claes Bang is both terrific and handsome as the lead actor, but for me it was a horror film. Further, though it dealt with a number of themes, including the tension between art for its own sake and the marketing of that art, it provided no help as a how-to-do-it film about dealing with the poor, the media or, for that matter, minorities, the opposite gender, sexual harassment, and a number of other topical issues. The Square is not a message film. It is a comment certainly on what is bad, but offered no hint about the good, only dilemmas, such as choosing between free speech versus sensitivity to others.
The Cannes jury president, none other than Pedro Almodóvar, described the movie as follows: “The film looks at the dictatorship of political correctness. It offers several examples of this. It is a very funny film, the actors are excellent and we considered giving the lead actor a Best Actor Award.” All of this is true. But none of it touches the greatness of the film. Even Ruben Östland’s comment that he tried to make a movie that tackled serious subjects but was also entertaining goes nowhere near the significance of the movie. Perhaps he was being modest. Perhaps he did not truly recognize the greatness of his art.
I am not going to write about the acting – which was terrific – nor the long takes and crisp cuts of the cinematography, a superb script capturing both everyday speech and highfalutin nonsense, the brilliant score and alternating background harsh noises, or the major and minor plot lines woven through the film. I will write only about the theme, a bonus since I will not introduce any spoilers.
Except for one. But it takes place in the first minute as an opening prologue to the film. The director comments on how he came to make the film by, with a friend and colleague, imagining that they could create a safe space where people can meet and not only not be harmed, but protected by others. Just as a crosswalk provides a safe place where pedestrians can cross a road and cars will respect (largely) the social contract that allows the space to function for its intended purpose, they envisioned creating a square with an inscription that declares the marked-off square to be a place of trust and caring: people passing would be encouraged to offer protection rather than to be indifferent to someone being victimized or simply in need of help.
This suggests a very large vision, and, as I shall soon indicate, a paradoxical problem at the centre of all the themes raised. In the film, “The Square” is the name of a contemporary art piece installed in front of a famous museum of modern art in the capital of Sweden, Stockholm. “The Square is made up of square stone blocks very little different from the rest of the plaza in which it is installed, except it is bounded by a continuous white light band with a bronze plaque defining the nature of the space.
But this is the paradox – a boundaried space that is safe and protective for everyone within that defined square but is extremely dangerous for those outside the boundaries. The Chinese monster film, The Great Wall with Matt Damon and directed by Zhang Yimou makes that point. But the square does more than a wall. For the boundary marks off trust inside and distrust outside, safety inside and high risk outside, caring for one another inside and indifference outside, high civilization inside and barbarism outside. Further, the space is very small relative to the vastness of the occasions for risk, danger, physical harm and social shame.
To make that point, the author dreams up a number of relatively trivial incidents set off by a scam asking for help, but turning into the obverse, victimizing the one offering help then followed like a repeating pistol directly or indirectly set off by the repercussions of the first act. Once civilization is displaced by chaos, it is very difficult to put the genie of chaos back into the bottle. Every effort to atone for the initial failure by owning up only bounces back to victimize the “liberal” bleeding heart once again.
Of course, this is about daily life where on street corners and outside grocery and drug stores we are asked for funds and cannot escape the trap of victimizing the helper of goodwill because of the daily spam messages we receive in our email, with all of the misspelling and grammar errors, reflecting either a poor education in English or a deliberate effort to sound authentic.
“Forgive my indignation if this message comes to you as a surprise and may offend your personality for contacting you without your prior consent and writing through this channel.
“I came across your name and contact on the course of my personal searching when i was searching for a foreign reliable partner. I was assured of your capability and reliability after going true your profile.
“I’m (Miss. Sandra) from Benghazi libya, My father of blessed memory by name late General Abdel Fattah Younes who was shot death by Islamist-linked militia within the anti-Gaddafi forces on 28th July, 2011 and after two days later my mother with my two brothers was killed one early morning by the rebels as result of civil war that is going on in my country Libya, then after the burial of my parents, my uncles conspired and sold my father’s properties and left nothing for me. On a faithful morning, I opened my father’s briefcase and discover a document which he has deposited ($6.250M USD) in a bank in a Turkish Bank which has a small branch in Canada with my name as the legitimate/next of kin. Meanwhile i have located the bank,and have also discussed the possiblity of transfering the fund. My father left a clause to the bank that i must introduce a trusted foreign partner who would be my trustee to help me invest this fund; hence the need for your assistance,i request that you be my trustee and assist me in e
“You will also be responsible for the investment and management of the fund for me and also you will help me get a good school where i will further my education.
I agreed to give you 40% of the $6.250M once the transfer is done. this is my true life story, I will be glad to receive your respond soonest for more details to enable us start and champion the transfer less than 14 banking days as i was informed by the bank manager.
“Thanks for giving me your attention,
Miss. Sandra Younes”
Of course, the movie is about postmodernism in general and postmodern art in particular. The most horrific but also most hilarious scene is one of pasty-white Swedes dressed to the nines at a formal luxury dinner of donors to the museum. A performance artist for the delight and the enlightenment of the audience is on offer as a prelude to the dinner. They had clearly not understood the meaning of the boundaries of the square described at the prelude to the movie, for as soon as one strays outside or invites the primitive within, the very thin patina of civilized behaviour is put at grave risk. Is that reality or merely a reflection and projection of their own fears?
The simplicity, the repetitions and variations of the different sketches all loosely tied together by the main plot, are all exaggerated by the cinematography that stresses minimalism and alternates between long shots and close ups – the most horrifying perhaps than even the dinner, the scene of sweaty but emotionless and vacant sex. Order is a chimera. The greater reality is of chaos and the principle that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can send waves that disturb the order in a radically different realm. In this one, the disturbances come from the suburban Swedish equivalents to the Parisian banlieues. Modernism is about order and predictability. In art, Jackson Pollock destroyed the reign even of minimalism’s focus on line and colour and shape and opened the door to performance art and the mounds of earth and gravel piled up like well-ordered rows of pyramids in an art gallery.
As babies disturb conference meetings, as chimpanzees are owned as pets in one’s apartment, as children accompany dad to work, as the boundaries between work and home, between privacy and the public world, between what is liberal that morphs into a strain a fascism, all break down, as the line between the lecture and the press conference, between a detached objectivity in art and an involved and engaged subjectivity, between using words and images for communication and their use for arousal of fundamental passions in order to gain the attention of a very jaundiced audience, all break down, as borders are traversed, crossed and they disintegrate like the continuous strain of sound of demolishing structures in the background sound track, we are all put at risk.
At the base, there is the breakdown of the boundary between art and science, between subjective expression and empathetic involvement, between subjectivity and objectivity. The Swedes are the embodiment on this globe of the latter that percolated into an ethics of engagement and commitment that meant a higher percentage of refugees relative to the existing population than even in Germany were allowed entry through the new humanitarian sieve of aid to refugees. There could be no better place to locate such a movie.
It is expressed in the effusive and tangled apologetics for concept art that itself questions the idea of art framed in a boundaried space and in a boundaried place like an art gallery, that even makes a claim that art itself is the expression of the destruction of boundaries even when the main piece of art on display is a simple boundaried two-dimensional plane of supposed safety and security, but which erupts like a volcano out of nowhere into three-dimensional so-called reality. It may have been science that let chaos out of its cage, but it becomes the duty of art to put it on display in all its wondrous glory. How do you do it without either adopting a modernist stance of portraying it all with a camera detached and at a distance while engaging the audience’s fears and fantasies?
Chaos theory may have been imported in daily life metaphors to emphasize disruption rather than predictability as the norm, to brand outright lies as the only truth and to make the claim that news organizations aiming at objective truth are the foremost purveyors of “false news,” thereby making room for the coverage of lies to dominate the news cycle. For what is important is not what people say about you, but that they talk about you. Chaos theory in science may emphasize the importance of non-linear connectivity as a foundation for understanding complex behaviour, but art is left with the responsibility of making sense of this detritus.
Hence an art movie that is terribly, literally “terribly” entertaining, while, at the same time, both delivering a profound message and laughing at the message itself. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, mis-communication all become the “order” of the day in which even the purely scientific idea of chaos theory is turned into garbage as it is translated into so-called art and metaphor and the theory itself is twisted beyond all recognition.
Jean-François Lyotard in chapter 8 of his volume, The Inhuman: Reflections on Time, entitled, “Something like: ‘Communication …without communication,” raised the question about communicating to a public a theme that displayed and put on view the atomization of modern society to the point where it became postmodern and it became an absurdity to create art, the subject matter of which was non-communication. Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Judgement had stated a basic premise of modernist aesthetic theory. Taste is “the faculty of judging what renders our feeling, proceeding from a given representation, universally communicable without the modulation of a concept.” What if there is no way to determine a “given” representation? What if every representation has been modulated to death by concepts? What if the only thing universal is not understanding and not communicating but misunderstanding and non-communication? How then can an artist portray such a situation without him or herself becoming trapped in the square of safety that has now become a centre of chaos and disruption?
In the movie, the real chaos is set in process when the marketing people take control with the categorical imperative of getting people to pay attention to an effort at communicating the essence of the high priest of ethical modernism which dictates that we are all to treat others as an end and not merely a means. We are all commanded to protect and care for one another. But when the ethical end itself explodes in our face because of the effort to communicate the message widely, the creature of chaos has been let out of its cage and barbarism has been permitted entry into the refined sensibilities of the world of high art.
If in my reading of Hegel, we have been taught that we can never escape the dictatorship of concepts that percolate through all our thoughts like a rat infestation. Then there is no ethics that can grasp grace. There is no art that can escape the conceptual, and all art becomes conceptual art. How do we illustrate and represent Christian, the CEO of this modern art museum who is a Christian at heart, how do we portray, represent and communicate a message of brotherly and sisterly love when Christian morality seems to have no place in the world of art, in representation, in communication, and, therefore, in its logical conclusion, in society at all? Everything turns to dust which can then be ordered into regular pyramids in a gallery, line after line, row after row, only to be disturbed and be remade by the cleaning technology of a modern sweeping machine and its operator.
If there is no beauty left as the touch point of art, if beauty has been destroyed as the necessary a priori condition of all art whatsoever, if there is no universal principle behind art and art has become the display of the absence of such a principle, how can we be made to be present in the face of an absence? Why have museums of modern art, let alone museums of postmodern art which undermine the whole role of museums altogether? How can we pretend to have art that is even about a community of feeling, even in a very symmetrical and relatively very small square in front of our museum? If the message is to communicate the absence of communication, the dissolution of a community of empathy, and the theme that we have permitted the barbarians through the gate that protected art, and beauty and goodness as an aristocratic privilege in society, how can that be represented? The lineal and the figurative are all swept up in the dustbin of history by the cleaning staff and their mechanistic monsters that remake art beyond recognition.
For the ultimate question raised in the film is how and where we can give to one another when we are so bereft of the concept of grace, when grace itself cannot be grasped except as an abstract idea rather than a basic emotion, when Christ has become but a name for a postmodern art curator who is at heart a hapless Charlie Chaplin creation? When the immediacy of attachment has been driven off the surface of our planet, how can there even be mediated attachment? When everything becomes the calculation of the marketer, of public relations entailing neither a public nor any relations, but only manipulation, it won’t matter whether we drive an electric car, try fruitlessly to atone for our mistakes or make meagre efforts to contribute to the well-being of the world. Chaos and barbarism have become all the rage.
When we try to define space and a time for safety and security, but the place is here only in this place and only for the moment that it is on display, the here-and-now are essentially lost and there can be no grace – only representation of it as a vanishing cloud of smoke above an explosion. When there is no reality to reference, everything becomes smoke, but only with mirrors that cannot reflect even the smoke, even as it tries in scene after scene to offer variations on that representation. When the sensible, when the apple is an apple is an apple, has been driven from the screen, so too follow the sensitive and the sensible into the fiery storm of sensation. And there is no sublime – only the ridiculous.