Ruben Östlund’s ‘The Square’ is a satire of our culture of complicity

Ruben Östlund’s ‘The Square’ is a satire of our culture of complicity
Terry Notary in ‘The Square’ as Oleg, a performance artist looking to make his audience deeply uncomfortable Magnolia Pictures/IMDb
Terry Notary in ‘The Square’ as Oleg, a performance artist looking to make his audience deeply uncomfortable Magnolia Pictures/IMDb
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A half-naked man enters a grand ballroom. Wealthy museum patrons sit at gorgeously arranged dinner tables, dressed to the nines. The man, wearing what look like stilts on his arms, marches through the room like a dominant ape — an alpha — examining the objects and the people. The diners have been told not to look him in the eye; it may set him off. Of course, some can’t help it.

The man lets out an ape-like holler, asserting his dominance over everyone in the room. Another person catches his eye and he lunges, jumping on top of a table, sending crystal wine glasses flying. He then spots another man and decides to have some fun, poking and prodding until the guy’s had enough and tries to stand up for himself. It’s to no avail, though: The ape-man yells and hoots and chases him out of the room.

This is the most striking and memorable scene in The Square, the latest film from Swedish director Ruben Östlund that began its limited U.S. release on Friday. The movie took home the top prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or, so it clearly struck a chord with members of the film community; but the picture feels particularly resonant in the latter half of 2017, especially considering how the confrontational dinner scene escalates further.

Source: Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing/YouTube

The ape-man, named Oleg, eventually sees a woman, who’s beautiful and fascinating to him. He moves toward her, touching her hair and face as she sits frozen in terror. The room stays still. Nobody’s willing to risk getting involved to handle the threat, even as he becomes more dangerously possessive of the woman. Finally, after he pushes her to the ground and appears as though he’s about to mate with her, some of the men in the room intervene, jumping on top of Oleg and beating him.

“I always try to think, can we twist it one more time,” Östlund said during an interview alongside actor Terry Notary, who plays Oleg, at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Östlund explained that he wants to push every single scene as far as it can go, always imagining, “Is there something else that could happen?”

Notary is a noted performance coach who has worked on many motion-capture productions — he’s played apes in the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and King Kong himself in 2017’s Kong: Skull Island. And during the interview, he echoed Östlund’s thinking on the dinner scene. In Notary’s words, the goal was to “take it to the Nth degree and finally push the boundaries so far that we turn the audience themselves into the beast — expose their weaknesses.”

That scene encapsulates everything The Square is preoccupied with and satirizing: privilege and social divides, and the casual lack of compassion among people that lets them neglect or stay silent when others are put at risk. It’s about what happens when society’s so-called elites are forced to reckon with the horrors of everyday life.

[With ‘The Square’] Östlund captures the bystander effect in action.

It’s tough to watch that scene — in which a man very nearly rapes a woman in front of a stunned audience who waits until the last moment to try and stop it — and not think about the various “open secrets” that have been exposed in the entertainment industry lately. Östlund captures the bystander effect in action, the sort of complicity that kept men like Harvey Weinstein and James Toback, who are both facing scores of allegations related to sexual misconduct, protected and safe.

In the film, Notary’s an artist, putting a room full of donors to a modern art museum in Stockholm through a terrifying work of performance art. He’s trying to shock the audience in the room into understanding of how often people fail one another. By extension, it’s a feeling Östlund tries to get out of his real-world audience. And that’s just one scene in a film that explores these themes through what more or less amounts to a series of vignettes.

The story’s real protagonist, Christian (Claes Bang), is the museum’s curator and he’s mounting a new installation called “The Square” that’s meant to similarly, if less violently, startle museum-goers into feeling a deeper sense of empathy. At the same time, he’s a man of great means who thinks little of others, whether they’re women that he treats like sex objects (including The Handmaid’s Tale’s Elisabeth Moss, who offers a hilarious turn), or members of the poorer immigrant class in Stockholm, with whom he avoids association as much as possible.

And, without getting too in the weeds regarding the film’s plot, Christian’s also the type of man who pushes a child down a set of stairs because the boy’s demanding Christian’s attention and respect. After that scene — which is staged like Notary’s ape scene, with its escalating tension that builds from comedy to horror — Christian recognizes how hypocritical he’s been. He starts to understand that even though he espouses liberal, socially minded ideals through his work and words, he’s still living in a bubble of privilege, thanks to his class, race and gender.

The movie’s brilliance lies in those scenes, which are designed to bring viewers up to the breaking point, right alongside its characters. It puts us, the audience, in the position of questioning our own complacency and hypocrisy. It makes us realize that we’re all living in The Square.