Do you want to save a human life?
You always hear labels like “before its time” or “of its time,” but what about “beyond its time?” The latter is the phrase I would use to describe Ruben Östlund‘s Palme d’Or-winning (Cannes) The Square because everything it tries to say in a “pay attention before it’s too late” way doesn’t realize it’s already too late. This idea that our world has turned from one where adults could rely on others for communal protection and safety to one where strangers regardless of race, religion, or social standing are observed with skepticism and mistrust has pretty much run its course. This shift isn’t still ongoing like it was ten to fifteen years ago. This ship has sailed. Altruism is dead. Every action is now steeped in selfish ulterior motives.
So while it’s funny to watch Östlund’s characters engage in awkward situations that highlight how out-of-touch or numb they’ve become, it never feels as though we’re laughing at ourselves. And that, I believe, should be the goal. Watching Swedish citizens stop to listen to a woman earnestly ask, “Do you want to save a human life?” before shaking their head as though she’s selling them something should provide an avenue towards self-reflection. But it only earns a shrug, a “Yeah, I would do the same thing.” We’re on the opposite side of the threshold between inhumanity and humanity. We live in a present-day where one doesn’t affect the other because those plying the former are evil and those plying the latter are “gaming the system.” Inhumanity is norm.
The film isn’t a mirror, but a window on what we already know. And those who don’t wouldn’t be seeing it anyway. (Yes, I know my saying that means I’m just as bad as those onscreen, but that’s exactly my point.) To create an artwork that ostensibly satirizes “artwork” as an elitist mode of telling a public what they already know and abhor about themselves is about as “meta” as something could get because it goes beyond merely putting objects into a sphere of consciousness where it doesn’t usually belong. We’re beyond Carl Andre’s Lead-Copper Plain and whether a gallery-going public taught not to touch the work will walk on it unwittingly but not wittingly. Östlund is showing how Earth is the gallery and we are the work.
Will we simply look and not touch? Will we refuse to engage and thus prevent ourselves from being oppressed like those seeking our help? Will we stop seeing Andre’s lead “rug” as anything more than a shortcut from where we stand and where we want to be? Will all those homeless beggars in the street become invisible monuments like street lamps and mailboxes that we only consciously register long enough to avoid walking straight into them? These are all questions we should have asked at the turn of the century, necessary queries to put a stop to the societal backslide we as a species had already fallen into. Östlund asking them now seeks inciting a reaction and yet my experience watching The Square was one of indifference instead.
Honestly, this says more about me than anything else. It proves I’m no longer someone who will press the “trust” button when a diverging path labeled “mistrust” exists. And it’s that cynicism that I believe we need in order to survive the chaos happening all around us—the atrocities being done to “others” because it’s easier to put a foot on their necks then lend a hand to hoist them back onto their feet. But I’m not ignorant to the fact that this same cynicism does also contribute to that climate. It’s one thing to be too self-absorbed to help a stranger screaming and a complete other to question whether his/her motives are to lure a naïvely empathetic soul in—to use victimization as a means towards predation.
But that’s where we are. That’s where the mistrust arrives. We’re as likely to be a victim as we are a predator. We will consciously use our power to get someone into our bed and discover how he/she only went along with us to take something of ours too. Östlund does a fantastic job ensuring every single one of his characters exists in a place that simultaneously portrays this duality. Look at Michael (Christopher Læssø) and how he will be gung-ho about questionable actions until the opportunity to perform them arrives with unavoidable fear and trepidation. Look at Julian (Dominic West), an artist whose goal is to provoke his audience by presenting things outside their aesthetic who becomes flustered when presented with the same (twice).
Again, though, what do those characters teach? What do they say that we don’t already know? Nothing. That doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the journey, though. I found gallery curator Christian (Claes Bang) to be a delight. His audacity to put countless lives in danger so that he can procure the results he seeks is relatable in the most distressing of ways. It’s fun to see Elisabeth Moss‘ Anne exploit a stranger’s affliction as a means for comedy, become sanctimonious about something she was a willing participant in, and then have everything wash away when given an unprovoked compliment. It’s a joy to see two straight-out-of-college advertising men pitch a reactionary video that has nothing to do with the product being sold and geek out when it works.
The Square doesn’t reveal how “safe spaces” no longer exist; it merely reinforces that truth. And the way it lets people off the hook only proves as much because growth is never a viable outcome. Any opportunity to evolve or learn from one’s flaws is transformed into more evidence of those flaws. And the more we see other characters look at the person at fault but not say anything proves their complicity—the ubiquitous indifference of mankind. It doesn’t make me happy to watch it or angry. It simply earns a knowing laugh in acknowledgement of how far-gone we are. Östlund has created a work that describes how we’ve let ourselves become sheep too afraid to stand up for what’s right because doing so risks leading to our personal demise.
To a point that renders what he did a success—albeit overlong and often repetitive in the process. There’s a lot happening and more often than not multiple threads resolve to provide the same message. It’s a shame because the unforgettable dinner scene with Terry Notary‘s Oleg harassing guests as the outwardly metaphorical “beast” we as people have become inwardly expresses everything with exacting precision. We watch as the majority simply ignores his carnage until after it becomes too late. Oleg epitomizes the film itself then, a monstrous depiction we’ve rendered “normal.” He’s allowed to cross a line. He’s allowed to cause harm. And our response isn’t to stop his unchecked aggression as much as fuel it because we too have lost our grip on civility.
 Dominic West and Terry Notary in THE SQUARE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 A scene from THE SQUARE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
 Elisabeth Moss in THE SQUARE, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.