In 'The Square,' A Scandinavian Satire Of A Modern Art Museum

Oct 26, 2017
Originally published on October 26, 2017 10:46 pm

Sweden is often described as one of the world's most progressive and equal societies. In a new film called The Square, things aren't as perfectly Scandinavian as they seem.

It's a satire of Sweden's cultural elite set in a modern art museum. An early scene pits an American journalist against the museum's director, and the journalist reads him a confusing, academic-sounding passage he once wrote. Filmmaker Ruben Östlund says the museum director's language is real.

"It's quite funny with that text because I'm a professor at the film school in Gothenburg where I live," Östlund says. "And on the fine arts department, it's actually a professor that has written that text. So I stole it, and I haven't asked him if I could borrow it, but that text is for real."

The Square won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival and opens in the United States this week. It's a stinging critique of exactly the kind of people who attend Cannes, says Dennis Lim, head of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Lim says The Square is not the kind of movie that usually wins there.

"So many films were about something," Lim says. "They were about about the state of Europe, they were about the migrant crisis. And I think Östlund happens to make films that are about those things — incidentally about those things — and about those things in very serious ways but not self-serious ways, you know? And I think that's what makes him, I think, stand apart a bit — this sense of humor and this unpredictability."

At 43, Ruben Östlund is part of a new generation of European filmmakers who aren't looking to the past.

"I think that for me, that the best moving images I unfortunately don't see in the cinema," he says. "I see it on YouTube."

Östlund got his start making short films about skiing, and he brought that kinetic style to his last film, Force Majeure — an avalanche disaster movie that also examined gender politics and family values. In exploring those kinds of questions, Östlund also wants to entertain his audience.

In The Square, Sweden's Royal Palace is now its chicest and most woke art museum. The King's statue is dismantled from the palace entrance, and replaced with a square light installation that represents kindness, inclusion and equality.

Östlund says an art museum is a perfect place to poke at those ideals.

"Because it's a space where we can discuss what kind of society we want, where we can look at ourselves in contemporary times," he says. "What is happening with us now?"

Östlund shows a cultured, privileged society blind to the homeless and the refugees that crowd the sidewalks. His central character – the museum curator, Christian – embodies that hypocrisy. He's played by Danish actor Claes Bang.

"He's living in sort of, you know, the upper five percent of something," Bang says. "I mean, he can't really see what's going on in the world. It's like he's just, like, living in the art world and these values are not something that he actually connects to."

Dennis Lim thinks The Square is a broader commentary on the distance between the ideals people profess and how they actually behave.

"I think the film ultimately is not ultimately about the art world," he says. "I think it's a film that recognizes that the art world is kind of an ideal setting for what it's trying to explore, in terms of, you know, the specific conflicts, the specific themes of ego, and privilege and liberal guilt."

So the Museum's sleek galleries become the sets for satire. A janitor accidentally vacuums up a pile of dirt that's part of a new art installation. A stolen iPhone leads the curator into a late-night chase through Stockholm's housing projects in his new Tesla.

Ruben Östlund sees his film as part of a long Swedish tradition of self-criticism.

"We have been dealing with these things for a long time in Sweden," he says. "You know, like, constantly looking at ourself. Are we equal enough? Can we be better? Then I also went to film school where when you look at movies as an art form when you're trying to say something, you know? Point out something that you don't like in society, you know, that you actually want to change something."

But he wants to change it in his own way.

"I want movies to be wild, you know?" Östlund says. "When the audience goes to the cinema, it should be excited, like [gasps] what is this movie doing with me, it's throwing me in that direction or that direction. It shouldn't be that safe to go to the cinema, I think. Very often when you go to the film you think, 'Ah, now I know what kind of film this is, now I can lean back and just watch it.' But then it's fun to make a film that's surprising audiences, and throwing the audience in unexpected places.

And so his latest film uses the wilds of a modern art museum, already a potentially confusing place, to test the limits of its characters — and their values.

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Sweden is often described as one of the world's most progressive and equal societies. In a new film called "The Square," things aren't as perfectly Scandinavian as they seem. It's a satire about that country's cultural elite set in an art museum. The film won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and it opens in the U.S. this week. Bilal Qureshi has the story.

BILAL QURESHI, BYLINE: Filmmaker Ruben Ostlund opens "The Square" with this suggestion - is there anything more pretentious than the language of the modern art museum?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SQUARE")

ELISABETH MOSS: (As Anne) Exhibition-non-exhibition, an evening conversation that explores the dynamics of the exhibitable.

QURESHI: Elisabeth Moss plays a journalist asking a museum curator the simple question, what exactly does it all mean?

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SQUARE")

MOSS: (As Anne) From non-site to site, from non-exhibition to exhibition, what is the topos of exhibition-non-exhibition in the crowded moments of megaexhibition?

QURESHI: Ruben Ostlund says the art speak is real.

RUBEN OSTLUND: It's quite funny with that text because I'm a professor at the film school in Gothenburg where I live. And on the fine arts departments, it's actually a professor that had written that text. So I stole it. And I haven't asked him if I could borrow it. But that text is for real.

QURESHI: Even the curator in the film struggles with an explanation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE SQUARE")

CLAES BANG: (As Christian) When - when - I mean, if you place an object in a museum, does that make this object a piece of art? For instance, if we took your bag and placed it here, would that make it art?

MOSS: (As Anne) Ah.

QURESHI: "The Square" is a stinging critique of exactly the kind of people who attend the Cannes Film Festival, says Dennis Lim. He's head of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Lim was at Cannes this year and says "The Square" is not the kind of movie that usually wins there.

DENNIS LIM: So many films were about something. They were about the state of Europe. They were about the migrant crisis. You know, and I think Ostlund happens to make films that are about those things - incidentally about those things, and about those things in very serious ways, but not self-serious ways, you know? And I think that's what makes him, I think, stand apart a bit, this sense of humor and this unpredictability.

QURESHI: At 43, Ruben Ostlund is part of a new generation of European filmmakers who aren't looking to the past.

OSTLUND: I think for me, I think that most of the best moving images I unfortunately don't see in the cinema. I see it on YouTube.

QURESHI: Ostlund got his start making short films about skiing, and he brought that kinetic style to his last movie, "Force Majeure." It was an avalanche disaster movie that also examined gender politics and family values. But in exploring those kinds of questions, Ostlund also wants to entertain his audience. In "The Square," Stockholm's Royal Palace is now its wokest (ph) and chicest art museum. The king's statue is dismantled from the palace entrance and replaced with a light installation that represents kindness, inclusion and equality. Ostlund says an art museum is a perfect place to poke at those ideals.

OSTLUND: Because it's a space where we can discuss what kind of society we want, where we can look at ourself in contemporary time. What is happening with us now?

QURESHI: Ostlund shows a cultured, privileged society blind to the homeless and the refugees that crowd the sidewalks. His central character, the museum curator, embodies that hypocrisy. He's played by Danish actor Claes Bang.

BANG: He's living in sort of, you know, the upper 5 percent of something. I mean, he can't really see what's going on in the world. It's like he's just, like, living in the art world and these values are not something that he actually connects to.

QURESHI: Film scholar Dennis Lim says "The Square" is a broader commentary on the distance between the ideals people profess and how they actually behave.

LIM: I think the film is not ultimately about the art world. I think it's a film that, you know, recognizes that the art world is kind of an ideal setting for what it's trying to explore in terms of, you know, the specific conflicts, the specific themes of, like, ego and privilege and liberal guilt.

QURESHI: So the museum's sleek galleries become the sets for satire.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMPROVISACIO 1")

BOBBY MCFERRIN: (Singing in foreign language).

QURESHI: At one point, a janitor accidentally vacuums up a pile of gravel that's part of a new art installation. A stolen iPhone leads the curator on a late-night GPS chase through Stockholm's housing projects in his new Tesla. Ruben Ostlund sees his film as part of a long Swedish tradition of self-criticism.

OSTLUND: We have been dealing with these things for a long time in Sweden, you know, like, constantly looking at theirself (ph). Are we equal enough? Can we be better? And then I also went to film school, where you look at movies as an art form when you are trying to say something. You know, point out something that you don't like in society, you know, that you want to - you actually want to change something.

QURESHI: But change it in his own way.

OSTLUND: I want movies to be wild. You know, when the audience goes to the cinema then it should be excitement, like, what is this movie doing with me? You know, it's throwing me in that direction or that direction. It shouldn't be that safe to go to the cinema, I think, you know, because it's very often when you go to film you know, oh, now I know what kind of film this is. Now I can lean back and just watch it. But then it's fun to make a film that is, like, surprising the audience and throwing the audience in unexpected places.

QURESHI: And so his latest film, "The Square," uses the wilds of a modern art museum, already a potentially confusing place, to test the limits of its characters and their values. For NPR News, I'm Bilal Qureshi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.