The off-center opening shot of Ruben Östlund’s film The Square focuses on a man who’s asleep on the job. Christian (Claes Bang), the chief curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, is sprawled on the sofa in his office when an assistant enters the room to wake him. He’s due to meet a reporter in one of the galleries.
The Swedish director frames the press interview that follows with a neon installation reading “YOU HAVE NOTHING” directly above Christian’s head. The sign is both the measure of Christian’s spiritual capital and Östlund’s opening announcement; over the next 150 minutes, The Square will expose this character’s moral bankruptcy to the audience.
From the outset, Christian, a lanky 6-foot-4 libertine, appears to be equal parts arrogance and absent-mindedness. Not a sinister man, certainly, but one with several recognizable flaws. But what makes this particular character so deserving of a comeuppance?
In a recent phone interview, Östlund discussed what interested him most in taking Christian to task. He explained that he “was looking at him from the power position that he has, as a privileged man, and the kind of pressure that you are under when you are in that position.” As the character makes a series of bad decisions, Östlund wanted to see how he’d react to losing that privilege.
Outside of his workplace obligations, Christian is a divorced father with two young daughters. These girls would be marked for tragedy in the hands of other Nordic filmmakers like Ingmar Bergman, Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier — yet while Östlund’s vision is at times severe, it is not overwhelmed by gloom.
He pitches absurdity and wit against depression, citing Roy Andersson (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence) as an influence over Bergman. But he does admit that the Dogme 95 movement, started by Vinterberg and von Trier, was “a very, very great inspiration because they used the energy of the low-budget movie in a creative way. I was in film school when they started to make movies. ”
Östlund presents his own set of dogmatic principles in The Square. Outside the entrance of Christian’s museum, the titular artwork is an installation by the Argentinian artist Lola Arias. It’s a rectangular strip of neon embedded in a public space that any passerby can step into. The curatorial statement that accompanies the work reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” This sounds like an iteration of the director’s own artistic manifesto, but Östlund actually has something less esoteric in mind.
He thinks of The Square (artwork) as a pedestrian crossing on a busy city street, where car drivers agree to stop because of two white lines. How people agree to such conventions is what interests him. “What questions that would raise, what kind of values — that was the core for me when it comes to the film,” he says. “Our idea was to create something like a humanistic traffic sign.”
Only when Christian brings his daughters to the exhibit and reads the statement with them does the meaning of the work sink in. He reads it as a parent, not a curator.
At random intervals throughout the film, you can hear characters in the background ask the question, “Do you want to save a human life?” While a privileged few characters contemplate the meaning of art, the director also includes images of homeless people asking them for help. What kind of social contract, Östlund asks, allows for such extreme disparity?
Östlund expands on the idea of a broken society by placing audio or visual disruptions in nearly every scene. The most disruptive moment is also the movie’s most memorable set piece: At a museum gala, a performance artist destabilizes the posh atmosphere and the diners’ equilibrium by behaving like a rampaging ape.
Christian also behaves like an animal, acting on his basest instincts. The director, though, is ultimately an optimist. He believes that the curator, after causing some harm, can do better by the people around him. Östlund says, “When you have lost everything, maybe that’s the moment when you are free.”
‘The Square’ opens Friday, Nov. 10 in San Francisco at Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission Theater. For more information, click here.