04 February 2022

52 for '22: The Square

Movie: The Square (2017)
Method: HBOMax

Apes together strong!

Why Did I Watch This?

The Square was one of those classic movies that was on my queue for literally years. It had buzz when it came out, it was nominated (and I think favored) to win the Oscar for Best International Film, although it ended up not pulling through. I had heard of it from back then and don't watch enough foreign films, so it was a no-brainer. It was really one of those moments where it was about to be taken off HBOMax on January 31st, so I finally pulled the trigger and checked it out.

What Did I Know Going in?

Surprisingly little. I knew there was a shirtless guy from all the ads. And I read the synopsis, which said it was a satire. Also, its 2.5 hour run time turned me off for a looong time. But really...not much more than that when I pressed play.

What did I think?

This movie was fantastic. Let's get the negative out of the way, it is DEFINITELY too long, especially towards the end. There is a lot of momentum in the film, it always feels propulsive, but there were scenes down the stretch with new characters (his daughters, which first appear [checks timer...] an 94 minutes into the movie! He's got kids?!) that assuredly drag on and forego the point. There are also a lot of really unique cinematography choices, some novel, others baffling, but in general I really enjoyed this.

Some folks will surely gripe at the chopped up, nearly anthology nature of this movie. It is oddly constructed in that it moves between only a handful of long scenes, some influence each other, others don't. Notably, the Wikipedia plot summary just tracks one storyline at a time, although in the film everything's happening simultaneously. The most famous (and best) scene, the aforementioned shirtless dude goes on for about 10 minutes and actually doesn't impact the plot in any way. It's not even in that Wikipedia summary...

This can be a negative, but ultimately, this feels like a hangout movie that still has a plot and sincere character arcs. Our main dude, Christian, is a museum curator who is smarter than just about everyone else, but also shallow. He's able to outwit conscious questions about the nature of art, but doesn't actually have much of substance to stand on. The film nominally centers around the museum's objective to install and promote a new piece, called The Square, which blandly promotes equality and helping others. Conversely, there's also a thread where Christian has his wallet pick-pocketed by a pair of con artists. Both of these pretty simple premises spiral out of control for the rest of the run time.

The thesis of the film seems to be repeated again and again, that within the Square, everyone is harmonious, helps each other, and has equal rights and obligations. Over and over it does seem like outside this square, no one is willing to help each other. You get that at the outset (sure, SPOILERS here), when Christian's wallet is stolen because he tries to help a woman, whose cries turn out to be false. There are beggars that everyone refuses to help, although again, Christian eventually does so, but he isn't thanked or rewarded. There's a mysterious entertaining bit when Christian refuses Elizabeth Moss' help in throwing away a recently used condom. You see it with the YouTube video that explodes, the boy Christian accidentally pushes down stairs, and more. It's just everywhere. This whole movie is about people not helping, not listening, and not bothering to understand other people.

So, do you want to talk about that scene? It fuels the thesis of non-helping as well as a commentary on the nature of art, mostly just how unknowable and exact it is. This dude is giving a performance at a gala where he's playing a Gorilla, and he absolutely commits to it. When does he just become an asshole for his commitment to a role that is clearly bothering everyone? The director, Ruben Ostlund (who also did the excellent, Force Majeure [2014]) says he was inspired by a piece by Oleg Kulik where he pretended to be a dog and attack people. That's great. Like, I get what the art is trying to do, but why do we need that in our lives? At what point do we agree that our point is made and move on?

It takes a lot. There is this disconnect between the patrons who think this artist will give up on his own, and the artist who takes his role seriously. It finally comes to a head when he assaults a woman and really looks like he's about to rape her. Folks finally get up and start beating the hell out of him. Would he have gone all the way for his art? Is it him trying to push this crowd and get them to stand up for each other (at the expense of himself?). Again, this is just the idea of helping each other out, even strangers at a gala, even if it means accepting the falseness of art.

This feeds into a bit about following directions. The gorilla in the film states before he comes out that if everyone is still and calm, the animal will ignore them. Just like when Christian gives directions to everyone who lives in a building to return his phone and wallet to him. But ultimately neither goes the way they expect, because we're dealing with human beings here. Chaos ensues, as one response to his letter so aptly suggests.

The film is supremely interesting, there are dozens of scenes to drill down into and pick apart. This doesn't even get into the other core plot element of creating a shocking YouTube video to drive up attention, even though it's wholly negative. Christian eventually has to resign from his position because he couldn't bother to screen the promotional video (which let's just say involves a child...that explodes), but it actually does exactly what the ad agency promised. He should be praised, but that surely wouldn't align with the museum's values. Or does it? Because they clearly are just insane people with no values. It's a really fun movie to think about.

It's also shot really weird. There is little to no camera movement in any given scene, even if two people are talking. Often one of them is off camera, so we really just stay with one character at a time and see their reaction. The scope is so limited and narrow, but there's also room for these big scenes in the museum, particularly on the steps when Christian introduces the exhibit and in the Ape scene. But more often, we barely get a glimpse of the car, the parking lot, or even establishing shots of the buildings we're in. It's so wholly focused on the characters. There was one scene where Christian is driving and his assistant is in the backseat, and I really couldn't figure out why. The camera is in the passenger seat and it's better for their dialogue, but it seems to totally break convention and doesn't care at all.

The Square is really long and the ending is dumb, but it's pretty great and you should watch it. Not on HBOMax anymore, but put it on your Netflix DVD queue baby!!

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