The Square opens on an interview between art curator Christian (Claes Bang) and journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss). She starts gently with a simple question, but her second is trickier. Anne asks for clarification on a text taken from his gallery’s website, couching her question in ignorance at her lack of comprehension. But when she reads the text aloud – a confused mess of deliberately obscure nonsense – Christian proves himself the ignorant one. With her down-to-earth demeanour, Anne takes the upper hand, capable of coaxing out the truth of Christian’s art world pretensions.
Director Ruben Östlund shows himself to be sensitive to gender politics here. Anne, who is not actually stupid, must perform a lack of intelligence to gain Christian’s trust, using her act to tease out the lack of meaning behind his ostentatious verbosity. The film critiques art world self-importance and shows how Anne must behave in order to navigate this largely male-dominated domain and make her point. With a strong and humorous opening, The Square quickly loses its wit as it descends into aimless anger and condescension. The film focuses on Christian as his gallery promotes a new installation – ‘The Square’. We follow the self-absorbed curator as he is robbed and retaliates; as he initiates a sexual relationship with the erratic Anne, and as his laziness leads to controversy and backlash when an offensive YouTube video is put out under his name. But while the film’s opening satirises the bourgeois art world, its edge is blunted by a constant mockery of everyone and everything.
In an interview with Variety, Östlund responds to a question about a scene in which a man with Tourette syndrome interrupts an artist Q&A with outbursts of expletives. Asked whether he was making fun of the audience, who attempts to maintain a polite veneer, or the man with Tourette’s who causes the scene, Östlund responds: “I’m making fun of everyone. I’m very thorough in that way. No one escapes from this satiric approach.”
This is the answer of a petulant child, of someone who doesn’t see the issue with and the impossibility of simply “making fun of everyone”. To put down a group with social, economic, and artistic power (the gallery audience and artist) is subversive. To put down a man who is already disempowered by social stigma is hateful, cashing in on mass lack of acceptance of disability. We can also look to the depiction of a Turkish boy who, falsely accused of robbery by Christian, retaliates by bullying him sporadically throughout the film. The Square presents him as a miniature thug – violent, vulgar, and irrational. Unlike Christian, who has moments of complexity (if not sympathy), the pre-pubescent boy is a racist cardboard cutout, the pure distillation of our ideas on Arab masculine aggression.
In a similar scene, the humour is to be derived from a homeless woman who not only asks for a specific sandwich, but requests to have it without onions: the comedy of a person with nothing making high maintenance demands is then contrasted with Christian’s own greed, neediness, and self-importance. But The Square doesn’t seem to understand that the mockery of a homeless person for having tastes (based on the idea that they should be grateful for whatever scraps they get) is not on the same level as the mockery of a man who refuses to spare some change, despite his evident wealth.
Though mocking them initially, The Square swivels back to these stereotypes, ultimately solidifying them.
Likewise, we witness the degradation of Anne. Beginning as a piercing critic of pretension, she unravels into the crazy hookup who, after having sex with Christian, comes to his workplace and loudly makes demands, criticising his casual relationship to sex. During the sex scene, Östlund plays on essentialist ideas of women when Christian becomes paranoid that Anne, attempting to dispose of his condom, actually wants to steal his semen due to his supposed celebrity. Christian is shown to be delusional in his self-importance – his idea of the conniving woman, desperate for a baby, going so far as to cheat the innocent man out of money, is ridiculed. Ultimately, however, this satire of gender politics loses steam as soon as Anne shows up to discuss their relationship.
When Anne suggests that Christian doesn’t even know her name, exaggerating her disdain for his supposedly cruel carelessness, he proves her wrong, a scene punctuated by Anne’s look of bristling shock. When she then suggests that Christian uses his power and position for sexual gain, he counters that she is attracted to power, and so again he bests her. Östlund employs a masculinist logic where power is attractive, so Anne must be attracted to Christian, and therefore she must be, again, wrong. Deciding that both Anne and Christian are equals in their poor choices and selfish behaviours, Christian is however still given the last word, and Östlund never address this difference in power. Anne, as less established, as less important in the art world, and as a woman, is already less powerful than Christian; Östlund adds to this his own misogyny which makes her views false, so that on top of everything else Anne is, fairly consistently, wrong. But Anne is not given the chance to say as much, where Christian is allowed to counter her presumptions. Though the two are mocked, they are never on equal ground, because Östlund believes in the misogynistic logic that Christian employs. Though mocking them initially, The Square swivels back to these stereotypes, ultimately solidifying them.
Instead of a satire of heterosexual relationships, careers, or sex, the whole scenes feels unfairly imbalanced against Anne-as-crazy-bitch. Both characters make mistakes, but her repeated, inappropriately vocal rages, followed consistently by humiliations, feels more like an anger towards her and the sexist stereotypes she embodies (the hysterical woman too tied to emotions, desperate for a relationship). Anne and Christian are shown to be fools, but Anne is bludgeoned by how wrong she is: though Christian has moments of being right, she is a mix of breathless indignation and failure. Though both mocked, Christian never receives the same absolute negativity Anne does. Even if we should believe Östlund’s intention of “making fun of everyone” equally, it is impossible to do so.
This anger towards women can be felt palpably again in the film’s iconic dinner scene (one which is promoted heavily, suggesting that it’s the film’s crowning moment) where a performance artist (Terry Notary) acts as an ape, threatening guests. As he pesters them, growing increasingly violent, it is finally a woman he attacks, grabbing her by the hair, knocking her to the ground, and pulling her across the floor before getting on top of her prone body and lifting her skirt with the suggestion of sexual violence. Only at this point do other guests react, beating him brutally. The scene, again, mocks both sides. Notary’s artist, as well as the art world which puts on his performance, goes too far, but so do the guests.
Östlund frivolously eases into violence against women, drawing upon aggression naturally while condemning action on either side, as the transgressions of the artist are placed on a par with the defence of a woman harmed. They can be on par because the woman is irrelevant — The Square does not care about her place in the world just as it does not care to expand Anne beyond stereotype. The attacked guest is an empty figure outside of meaning, despite Östlund’s insistence on engaging with the pertinent societal and cinematic issue of violence, physical and sexual, against women. The attack begins with a horrifically realistic depiction of the woman’s reaction: she plays along at first, attempting to be pleasant, as though she fears overreacting (will it anger him? will she be seen as hysterical in a safe situation)? This is a common narrative when we talk about sexual violence and rape, the manner in which women are socialised to acquiesce first, before fighting back. But where Östlund could have used this to discuss the way our society treats women and sexual violence, he instead employs her as only a spectacle which ends with a scene of retaliation being ‘too much’. This is shockingly tone deaf to our current political climate in its flippant exploitation of realistic gendered fear and violence, and ultimate blame towards the protection of the targeted woman.
Presenting itself as a balanced satire of everyone, Östlund’s “I hate all people equally” take is never satisfying. The juvenile perspective is exhausting, lending itself more to an angry apathy than a true critique. Because The Square’s satire is supposed to be against everyone, it fails in its comedic take down of the pretentious art world by attempting to take down everything else along with it. Disability, or homelessness, are just as bad as snobbish rich people with delusions of grandeur. As such, this “balanced” satire is unbalanced, a critique against the rich and powerful, but also a heavy critique, upholstered by social stigma and real world oppression, against the marginalised and disenfranchised, while, in particular, the repeated anger towards women becomes conspicuously more heated than the attacks against any other people. The dark humour only lands half the time, and the social commentary is unfocused. The Square’s biting satire is, in the end, little more than a temper tantrum, lashing out at everyone, unaware of its own place in the world, and exhaustingly condescending in its didactic diatribe against the world.