She and He at the Movies
Claes Bang in THE SQUARE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
by Katherine Vallin and William Alexander Yankes
The Square, winner of Cannes’ Palm D’Or in 2017, is a feature film by Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund with actors Claes Bang and Elizabeth Moss.
He: Shall we step into The Square?
She: I’d rather view it from the edge.
He: Unlike the title of this Oscar-nominated foreign film from Sweden, there are no right angles, nor straight lines in this feature production.
She: The story hinges on a charismatic, womanizing museum art curator’s conundrums.
He: Can you blame him? Women flock to him in droves. He doesn’t even have to really pursue them.
She: This journey starts when a journalist confronts him with his own intellectually obscure commentary on art. Befuddled, he finds himself barely capable of making sense of it.
He: There’s a comedic moment when the camera focuses on their respective facial expressions in reaction to this exchange.
She: The curator asks if one places a woman’s purse in the museum, does that make it a work of art?
He: While exploring the meaning of contemporary art, the film actually takes us into the darker and more profound malaise of our economically divided society.
She: An artist comes up with the idea of creating a square. Anyone stepping into the square is strongly encouraged, if not outright obligated, to treat others with genuine humanity, empathy and compassion.
He: The plot takes a turn when the curator, anxious over dwindling donor contributions, hires a young marketing team to disseminate this notion of the square as part of a campaign to increase public attendance…
She: He is buffeted by the social reality of the homeless, forcing him to grapple with his own sense of ethics in a complex society.
He: This satirical tale questions whether art encompasses how we live, the decisions we make that involve our private values and ethics, as well as our relationships with other people; or is limited to our relationships with material, inanimate objects.
She: Or, whether art provides a comfortable space for the well-heeled at a safe distance from the less desirable sector of humanity.
He: Look, I think the square is a space created on the brick walkway outside the museum as an artist’s attempt to interrupt that distance.
She: The square plays out as a symbol of a frame. What you place inside it becomes art, especially in the sacred place of a museum, where one is predisposed to admire art, even when what we gaze at is eschatology.
She: This film runs itself into a trap by trying to say too many things.
He: Yet, it has humor, dark humor that makes you cringe.
She: There are moments of absurdity.
He: Also, tongue in cheek scenes. What’s taxing is that the film develops on the slow side, even though the music is haunting throughout and the cinematography is awesome.
She: It holds a mirror before a society worshiping absurdity as art.
He: Since art represents the society that creates it, the larger question posed by the film asks whether or not society has become a pile of dirt, as the exhibition in the film seems to suggest. If so, it is the case that the emperor really has no clothes!
She: After a long setup, and many layers later, the film really begins when the protagonist engages in a dramatic interaction with a little boy, who forces him to face his responsibility. Finally, the museum curator steps out of his wealthy cocoon of pretense…
He: …into a symbolic trash bin to take a moral stance.
She: Yes, the viewer feels the vicarious pressure. But I have a bone to pick with it. I wish the film would connect with the audience more emotionally than intellectually.
He: Even though we were ushered into an art museum, the discussion becomes more about the art of living by thrusting us into a story that underscores a stark contrast between the wasteful wealthy and those the well-to-do don’t see nor hear.
She: Hmm. There were many nuances. I could give it another shot.
He: What do you mean by that?
Katherine Vallin has worked as a production designer and co-producer for many films in Hollywood. William Alexander Yankes is a film critic and a documentary filmmaker.