Art for Art's Sake: The Square

Ian Haydn Smith
9/08/17
Fantastic Women volontarius (łac.)

There's an hilarious clip you can watch online, of filmmaker Ruben Östlund and his producer watching the announcement of the 2015 Oscar nominations for Best Foreign Language Film from their hotel room (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYTWqLmnjt0). When the list of five films is read out and Force Majeure (2014), Östlund's brilliant fourth feature, is not one of them, he proceeds to destroy the hotel room off-camera with his producer giving us a running commentary of what he's doing. Some people reacted strongly to the clip, suggesting Östlund should get a grip on life. After all, it's only an award. But that was his point. Those people had failed to notice that the clip had been posted by Östlund's production company and his tirade was a wonderfully constructed hoax. But then, what would you expect from a filmmaker whose work strives to deflate the preciousness of middle class values. If Michael Haneke employs a scalpel in peeling back the hypocrisy of privileged Western society, Östlund could be seen to approach it with a whoopee cushion. It's no less powerful in exposing the venality of people, but there are certainly more belly laughs.

The winner of the Palme d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival, The Square is a brilliant deconstruction of that most hallowed strata of society - the art world. It centres on Christian (a superb Claes Bang), the director of a celebrated museum of modern art. His life appears perfect, but a new installation is set to tear his world apart. Imagine Yasmin Reza's play 'Art', but with sharper teeth. To say too much about the film will likely spoil the many pleasures it has to offer (including a fine international cast that features the currently ubiquitous - and reliably excellent - Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West). But there is little doubt that Östlund is one of the finest cinematic satirists of bourgeois life since Luis Buñuel.

An avid winter sports activist whose early work included extreme skiing videos, Östlund made an international impact with his third feature Play (2011). Initially appearing to be about bullying, the film gradually revealed itself to be a complex and provocative deconstruction of - and challenge to - attitudes regarding race; it suggests that we are unable to see actions for what they are because race plays an issue, either in the eyes of accusers or skilfully manipulated by the accused. There is no trite conclusion to the drama. (Moreover, a final scene in the film - in which a woman witnesses a man berating a young black boy and, unaware of the whole situation, angrily confronts him - is one of the most unsettling in the film.) We our left to ponder the ramifications of what we have seen and even to acknowledge our own prejudices.

Political correctness is a phrase often mentioned in relation Östlund's work - that he challenges what it stands for. But whatever good intentions lay in the actions behind that term (and there were many), it has been manipulated by its critics and is now a lazy term employed in myriad ways. Östlund's films are too precise to suggest they are merely a reaction to this notion. Like Buñuel, the brilliance of his films partly lies in the fact that it's not always clear how we should respond to, or think about, what we have seen. Take the final section of Force Majeure. In a scene reminiscent of the peripatetic diners in Buñuel's The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Östlund pulls back his focus on one family, instead reflecting on society at large. After tearing into notions of masculinity, some were confused over how the end of the film played out, or what it was that Östlund was trying to say. Perhaps that's why The Square is the perfect example of Östlund's style of filmmaking. Like any modern painting or installation, we can be plied with information about what was intended or read a statement from the artist themselves. But ultimately, it comes down to how each of us interpret what is being said and what that means to us.


Ian Haydn Smith

Ian Haydn Smith is a British writer and editor. Formerly the editor of the International Film Guide, he is the co-author of New British Cinema and author of the forthcoming The Story of Photography. He has attended New Horizons since 2008.


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