Makes you think

Tom Farsides watches 'The Square', directed by Ruben Östlund.

Are you awake? This is the first of many questions asked in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning film The Square. Finding decent answers is tricky though. That’s kind of the point.

The Square has evoked diverse ‘hot takes’ in the media and online. Given how explicit the film is about the relationship between marketing and art, it is perhaps slightly depressing that so few have recognised their conformity to both the director’s provocation and the film’s depicted worldview.

That said, it is easy to miss and misunderstand things in such a long film that cuts frequently between seemingly disjointed narratives and tableaux. Comprehensively appreciating the multiple themes and strands would take much more time, effort and attention than most viewers will be able or willing to invest. (I watched it twice, made extensive notes and use of the rewind button, and I bet I die one of the few people who ever knew what was under the couch in the opening scene…) It would be a fabulous choice to discuss on a media studies course or in a film club.

Opinions are predictably divided on whether the film is really as clever as it may seem. I say ‘yes’. I suspect that absolutely nothing about the film is accidental or irrelevant, no matter what some critics might think. (The chimpanzee was drawing for goodness sake! And those simian whoops come from within, my friend!) What any or all of it means, though, that is definitely up for debate.

Some aspects of the film are easily interpreted. Those interpretations are almost certainly facile. Yes, modern art galleries are satirised but the film is very poorly described as a satire on the art world. The film invites close examination of presumptions, prejudices, and posturing – including those in or invited by the film. My suspicion is that the best-educated and most knowledgeable art critics have made themselves the butt of the joke when they have oh-so-eruditely lambasted Östlund’s easily alleged targets.

Getting people to think is best done by giving them something to think about. Östlund attempts this by including in his film a vast array of scenes and sequences that make and leave vivid impressions. Highlights include a decapitation; rows and rows of identical, featureless, foreboding doors; someone mimicking a disability; a condom tug-of-war; several unwelcome sexual advances; a savage beating; and both the contents and some of the reactions to a viral video. All of these are instantly striking, insistent in the memory, and provide feastfuls of food for thought.

Another way to encourage thought is to ask questions and, as noted, the film asks many. Despite appearances, nearly all of them are directed at the viewer: Do you want to save a human life? How much inhumanity does it take before you access your humanity? Other questions are no less insistent for being less direct.

Thinking can also be encouraged by inviting interpretation. I don’t want to give spoilers or impose my own views so here are some things to think about that won’t make much sense now but might after you’ve watched the film. Whose explanation of their goals is better: the curator’s or the artist’s? Who does the ‘you’ in the neon exhibit refer to? Why does a mobile phone ring during a key speech? What is signified by the relative stillness or movement of the people portrayed in the film? What are the rights and wrongs of the amount of noise that various people make in the film? What shared functions are played by the baby, the young boy, the audience member with Tourette’s, and the female lead? What are the portrayed causes and consequences of unbridled passion? Finally, a couple of extra questions for those willing to do a little background research: who is Lola Arias and what are the key differences between The Square and Peter Singer’s circle?

Too many questions? I removed many more from earlier drafts. It can be difficult to stop when there are so many circles within circles and squares within squares; so many connections and ways of failing to connect.

I recommend The Square to anyone who has made it to the end of this review. I think you’ll enjoy it very much. It certainly raises a number of issues of huge importance to psychologists and to humans generally. I warn you not to be too trusting, though. Part of what makes the film so beguiling is its commitment issues. And don’t necessarily expect the hero to ride off into the sunset.

- Reviewed by Tom Farsides, University of Sussex

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