Directed by Ruben Östlund, reviewed by me.
Hey, everyone, so today I’m doing my first movie review. I should probably mention I’m a pretty avid reader of Rotten Tomatoes’ home page, and I’ve read a lot of their certified critics’ one or two line reviews. So, that said, I think I’m ready to go ahead and cut my teeth on this year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Square, directed by Ruben Östlund. I watched the original version of this film with French subtitles about a week ago in the Théâtre Gallia. I wanted to write this review while it was still fresh in my mind, but, like, also ripe enough to really dig into, so that’s why I’ve given it a few days to mature in my mind-garden. I’m sure other film critics would argue that it’s better to write a review right after you’ve seen the movie, or even watched it a second time, but you know what, I’ve never subscribed to that kind of Rorschach, first impression applesauce.
So, all in all, it’s pretty good. I’d say it’s definitely better than watching The Room with your parents, but worse than eating saltwater taffy at the beach. Or eating anything while watching The Square; Théâtre Gallia is apparently too good for a concession stand. Their philosophy seems to be that we’re supposed to feel adequately nourished by the experience of auteur cinema alone, without the aid of snacks or drinks. I even snuck food into the theater once, but I couldn’t eat it because no one else was eating and pretzel M&Ms are too crunchy to eat inconspicuously and alone.
For all my philistine readers who just aren’t in the know, ol’ Ruben’s a Swedish director from Styrsö, a quaint town of roughly 1,300 inhabitants and famous for its exportation of Ruben Östlunds. And this film is, for the most part, in Swedish with the exception of scenes featuring Elizabeth Moss, which are in English. Elizabeth Moss, however, wasn’t in most of the movie, so I spent the better half of two hours reading the movie with my adoptive compatriots. Actually, that reminds me: as I was leaving the film, one of my adoptive compatriots was discussing the film with the lad working the front, and complained that it was a long film in which nothing really happened.
I, on the other hand, would beg to differ. Christian, our film’s protagonist, goes through a whole roller coaster of awkward emotions and encounters. Sometimes Christian shares genuine moments of camaraderie with strangers, fending off staged aggressions against women who then rob Christian of his wallet while he’s distracted. Sometimes Christian yells at obnoxious little boys, who’ve broken in to his apartment, and who’re causing a ruckus during the wee hours of night, much to the abject horror of his daughters. Sometimes Christian tries to flex his affluence, only to arrive at a distressing half-chub of ostensible power that thinly veils his true status as yet another pawn in this cruel and pitiless world. This seemed like a pretty important point, you know, that even though Christian is a well-to-do, white, middle-aged, sexy-in-that-rugged-hipster-dad kind of way dude, he’s gettin’ the business just like everyone else.
And by everyone else, I mean mostly homeless people. This film really drives home the wealth inequality and destitution that the humans of Stockholm are experiencing. If Christian isn’t in the office neglecting his responsibilities as museum owner or at home pulling his screaming daughters off of one another, he’s out and about interacting with the other half. Usually by passing them by and ignoring them only to change his mind later and interact with them in some charitable or recompensing way.
I do see where my disgruntled adoptive countrywoman was coming from though. The movie doesn’t really end on a high note; we’re left with a disillusioned and jobless Christian driving his daughters home after his quixotic quest to right his wrongs against an underprivileged family is cut short. But my boy, Ruby Two-Shoes, was aiming for that glorious, murky sweet-spot of désespoir, weltschmerz and crushing absurdity. Really a winning combo. He stated in an interview that he was aiming to capture that feeling of trying to right a wrong that you’ve committed only to discover it’s now too late and the moment’s passed. Basically, if ol’ Rubes wrote the ending of Chamber of Secrets, Fawkes would’ve arrived a minute later and dropped the sword of Gryffindor on Harry’s petrified corpse.
So, like I said, I watched this movie about a week ago and it was in Swedish, so I don’t really have any good quotes ready for you. But I do have some quotes from my first review, John Green’s Turtles all the way Down, that fit the bill pretty nicely, so I’ll be supplementing square-quotes with turtle-quotes.
Towards the end of the novel, Daisy tells Aza this with regards to their own tale and how it ended in a somewhat unresolved and unsatisfying way:
“You pick your endings, and your beginnings. You get to pick the frame, you know? Maybe you don’t choose what’s in the picture, but you decide on the frame.”
And I think ol’ Ruben would agree with that. See, ol’ Ruben’s not the kind of guy to crop you out of his profile picture; he’s the kind of guy that crops you in and then also the older gentleman photobombing your photo with his fly down, pecker out. When Ruby edits a movie, he doesn’t just leave the fat on the final cut; he leaves a little bit of skin and hair on there too. His shots are just a little bit longer than you want them to be, and you get that extra screen time with moments you just wish would’ve already ended or never existed in the first place.
Midway through the movie or maybe even later there’s a scene in the film where Christian and his two girls are hanging out in the museum, checking out the Square, and Christian explains to them a little bit about what it represents. By the way, the eponymous Square is a piece of modern art that Christian spent way too much money on to have brought to his museum in Stockholm. Sorry, totally should’ve mentioned that earlier. Anyway, allegedly the Square is a place where anyone, no matter who they are or where they come from, can stand and feel safe. The poor can stand among the rich here, and if you need help, help will be given; if you need to talk, then good conversation will find you. Inscribed on a golden plaque near the piece are the words:
“The Square is a sanctuary where trust and altruism reign. Inside, we are all equal in rights and obligations.”
Or something. That’s my translation of the French translation from its original Swedish. Or maybe it was in English… this might be an English translation of the French translation of the original English plaque. Doesn’t matter, it’s a plaque with a kitschy slogan on it. Similarly, in Turtle’s All the Way Down, Aza and Daisy are walking through an old sewer and they see the words ,“THE RAT KING KNOWS YOUR SECRETS,” scrawled on the sewer’s wall. I don’t want to equate the potency of these two masterstrokes of genius, but I think one thing the Rat King has over The Square is its likelihood of actually influencing the life of a homeless person. Although, that’s more of a geographical commentary than a content one.
All in all, I give this film seven snowflakes, because as far as auteur cinema goes it’s pretty accessible in that you can watch it and be pretty interested without having Bourdieu levels of cultural currency. Also, it really highlights the misgivings social classes have about each other and how it can be hugely awkward when they try and interact, even with the best of intentions, and deflates upper-class philosophical philanthropy and idealism, which is good, because a lot of us like to talk a lot and at the end of the day we’ve changed nothing other than the way we feel about ourselves. Plus, Östlund nailed the tone and experience he was going for, leaving us in a uneasy state of moral ambiguity.
I hope you liked this review and feel free to like it, or share it, or print it out and throw it in a bin. Either way, I’ll see you next week!