Drawing the Line: A Review of Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or Winner, The Square

Ruben Östlund’s The Square, winner of this year’s Palme D’Or, satirizes the world of modern art and its empty commitment to progressive social ideals. It is a series of comical, often surreal, sketches, with all narrative threads leading back to Christian (Claes Bang), the handsome curator of Stockholm’s X-Royal museum of contemporary art.

At the start of the film, Christian is pickpocketed in the centre of a public square. Together with a co-worker, he tracks his stolen phone online. Genesis by Justice blares in the background as he drives his Tesla to the apartment block where the phone is located and, in this moment, enmity is born under the guise of right. Once Christian reaches the apartment, he slips accusatory messages into each unit’s mail slot in hopes of reaching the criminal.

Just as all of this strange personal business is going on, Christian acquires an artwork for the museum called “The Square”.  It is a small space cordoned off by four light-up lines with a plaque that reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.” In an interview, Östlund compares “The Square” to the crosswalk; it is a “humanistic traffic sign,” meant to remind people of their role as fellow human beings. Passionate about the piece, Christian argues for the strength in its brute simplicity. But once ‘The Square’ is introduced, its meaning hangs heavy over Christian; it clings to the character as a leech, slowly deprecating his moral pretensions until they are laid bare.

Östlund’s art world in is dominated by ego, wealth, and the claim to be cutting edge. ‘The Square’ captures something of its hollow charm. Four lines delineate a space of social obligation but its emptiness stands in stark contrast to Stockholm’s sidewalks, filled with the homeless and the hungry. The art world is vacant; it aims at nothing; its obligation is solely to itself. In the other exhibit, piles of gravel sit before a sign that reads: “YOU HAVE NOTHING”. It seems as though the art world takes pleasure in being reminded of its impotency, and humble servility to its own nothingness. When a janitor accidentally sweeps up some of the artist’s gravel, we recognize the absurdity of it all.

Still, Christian is not a bad guy, although his intentions are steeped in ego and ignorance. Östlund doesn’t condemn the artistic enterprise altogether, but aims to illustrate just how complicated intentions and artistic expressions can be in a world where we do not all share equal rights and obligations. He brings a series of moral questions to the fore. What is one’s role as an actor? Who is one responsible to?

He forays with confidence into these age-old queries, but his answers seem to change based on the time and place of their asking. In one scene, a man with Turrets yells obscenities at an artist being interviewed at the gallery. Speakers and audience members strain to remain tolerant; this is, after all, a “neurological disorder” and certainly this man deserves respect. But on the street, this same demographic feels no need to go out of their way to accommodate those less fortunate. Each day on his way to work Christian ignores the woman that stands in a public square, asking over and over again: “Do you want to save a human life?”

Östlund also examines the way power can alter feelings of obligation. Christian is a dominant figure. He sleeps around without much concern for his bed partners and acts unselfconsciously, assuming that others respect his every decision. But power is not a static force. It shifts between individuals. When Christian condescends to buy a sandwich for a homeless woman, he assumes the role of a kind, socially conscious citizen. But when the woman responds with a demand, she will have a chicken ciabatta, no onions, the balance of power shifts. Christian is taken aback by her assertive attitude. Is she not embarrassed? Grateful? Christian quickly attempts to restore his position of power by refusing to grant her request for no onions. The comedy of the scene almost camouflages its thematic significance, the way these two figures negotiate power and how that negotiation determines their lines of commitment.

Östlund concocts a variety of scenarios to test his characters, to reveal their obligations and the factors that pollute them. The Square is lengthy, the sort of film one thinks is about to end at least four times. Eventually it does, but it offers no real conclusion, no closure. Still, one cannot accuse Östlund of despair.

“The Square” looms heavy but not only to illuminate Christian’s moral weakness. Östlund takes the Levinasian view of social obligation. His characters understand that they enter the world always already responsible to those around them, and they search for meaning in that responsibility and the impossibility of escaping it. They realize that there is no autonomy, no pure, unsullied interiority, when they live, breath, and perform before the eyes of the Other. “The Square” dares to meet that gaze; it dares to think it possible.