Australian Cinema Release
The Square: All the world is art

'The Square' (2017) by the Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund is a film about a man championing a specific instance of art
'The Square' (2017) by the Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund is a film about a man championing a specific instance of art | © The Square

“All the world’s a stage,” claims William Shakespeare’s famous line from ‘As You Like It’. All the world is art, Ruben Östlund ostensibly offers back in ‘The Square’. The Swedish writer/director’s fifth feature steps inside a Stockholm art gallery to explore just what contemporary creativity means today — that is, what emboldens it and what holds it back.

That the answer to those questions is both everything and nothing might seem an easy response, but that’s what this filmic co-production between Sweden, Germany, France and Denmark posits. Here, a rectangular space with instructions for behaving reasonably and with empathy is a new, pivotal artwork, but appreciating its value is hindered by the reality that is modern life.

When anything can be art

At a time when anything can be art, anything can inspire it and anything can doom it, the important and the trivial alike. The square within The Square is held up as the former by gallery curator Christian (Claes Bang), but seen as the latter by those he doesn’t think is on its wavelength. Demonstrating the piece’s importance becomes his mission, via the expected interviews, plus increasingly outlandish publicity campaigns and attention-grabbing events. Of course, just like those helping, chatting about or failing to grasp the titular exhibit, the ups and downs of life get in his way.

The Academy Award-shortlisted film 'The Square' (2017) also proves a satire of artistic excess
The Academy Award-shortlisted film 'The Square' (2017) also proves a satire of artistic excess | © The Square
Accordingly, The Square is a film about a man championing a specific instance of art, and a specific interpretation of it, while finding that much of his daily happenings are equally pretentious and performative. It’s an effort where a mugging can unravel like a highly choreographed street show, and where a dinner party can fall into cruel disarray courtesy of simian-aping talent (Terry Notary). Christian’s initially savage treatment of those he suspects of stealing his mobile phone is juxtaposed with the unusual pet sharing journalist Anne’s (Elisabeth Moss) apartment, just as an exhibition involving piles of dust-like specks contrasts with a stint of literally diving through trash for something important, and an angrily, speedily written note to a select few finds its counterpart in a video advertisement going viral in the wrong way. Keeping the clashes going, the feature also proves a satire of artistic excess and an example of it, threatening to overstay its welcome at 142-minutes in length.

Academy Award-shortlisted

As his previous movie, the rightfully acclaimed Force Majeure, made plain, incisively skewering the gap between pretense and actuality is where Östlund excels. In the Academy Award-shortlisted film, there’s a vast difference between acting the part of a loving husband and father, and following through when an avalanche appears to be headed towards your family — with one character’s split-second behaviour the turning point in this marital holiday drama. The Square continues this contemplation, though the canvas is broader, and the chasm between public displays and private natures much bigger. Increased, too, is the filmmaker’s winking and nodding, hitting the viewer like a controlled landslide.

The Swedish writer/director’s fifth feature 'The Square' (2017) steps inside a Stockholm art gallery to explore just what contemporary creativity means today
The Swedish writer/director’s fifth feature 'The Square' (2017) steps inside a Stockholm art gallery to explore just what contemporary creativity means today | © The Square
Ultimately, as life becomes art within the movie and vice versa, The Square as a cinematic piece of art parallels its protagonist. Both are overstated, sometimes meandering to the point of grating, and yet frequently capable of cutting comedy and scathing insights alike; both feel like carefully staged performances, but ones that elicit a sharp, strong reaction. As a filmmaker, Östlund deploys his tools with savvy to evoke the desired impact, be it his tonal control as laughs and tension emanate, his visual precision in intimate moments and film-stealing set pieces, and in guiding naturalistic and comically exaggerated portrayals from his cast. He’s playing on a stage, all his actors merely players, but their combined mewling, shining, sighing, quarrelling and more leads to an acerbic, entertaining, surreal and statement-making portrait, rather than oblivion.

The Square will be released in Australian cinema from September 18. It will also screen at various festivals across Australia. More details will be announced soon. Please check the links on the right hand column for more information and screenings.
 

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