Ruben Östlund's problematic "The Square" awarded Palme d'Or at Cannes

By Moira Sullivan

Terry Notary's problematic ape mimicry 
The Square by Ruben Östlund from Sweden won the Palme d'Or at the 2017 Cannes film festival. It is a film that will work best in Sweden since its provincialism will be better understood. Outside of Sweden it may seem like it is a provocative film because when the dialogue is translated it might make it seem better than it actually is. But I speak Swedish and was disappointed with the film for many reasons.

Let's start with the roles for women. Most of the women wear extremely high heeled shoes, even middle age women, and have minor roles as secretaries or assistants. The female executive director of the museum is ridiculed and called crazy. The major female role of the film, Anne, played by Elisabeth Moss is so ridiculous that it is hard to believe that she agreed to it. She plays a foreign journalist who lives with a chimpanzee shown in one scene applying lipstick to its nose, peripherally reinforcing Östlunds preoccupation with apes elsewhere in the film. Anne interviews the curator of a Swedish art museum, Christian (Claes Bang) and has only one question about the inherent contradictions of the current exhibition. Christian’s answer is over simplified and the example used to illustrate it condescending. Moss is briefly in the film for an acrobatic one night stand and forgotten about after than – an empty sign in a communication system composed of male artists. There is nothing innovative about the male gaze of this scene.

The actual goings on at the museum includes a character with Tourette syndrome who interrupts the face to face with the public and Julian, a visiting artist played by Dominic West, also briefly on screen. The cinematography is theatrical meant for the stage. The current museum run by Christian, called the "X Museum" is actually the Royal Castle of the Kingdom of Sweden. Some of the rooms are used for a heavy drinking party where Christian and Ann hook up, and also for a posh dinner. The second instance of the use of women as exchange objects occurs with the character of Oleg, played by Terry Notary who has done chimpanzee characters in blue screen for films such as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. You can clearly see Bright Eyes and Rocket in his role as a disturber at the dinner. Oleg hassles the guests such as Julian, but in particular a woman who is dragged by the hair across the floor in neanderthal fashion demonstrating his mastery over the female body, and is then attacked by the men in the room defending the white woman. (Oleg's ape mimicry is part of a video installation at the museum, not unlike the historic collections of apes and gorillas in collections).

The Square is part of an exhibition plan gone wrong where everything is allowed within the parameters of a "square" with "trust and care". The young media technicians hired to promote the exhibition decide to put a blonde child in the square and blow her up on YouTube. It  receives mega hits and causes a public outcry. This way of addressing the internal issues of Sweden by using indigenous Swedes (the young blonde child) to drive home the problems with immigrants is both shoddy and ostentatious. Östlund makes ample use of Rumanian gypsies in Stockholm as minor characters as well.

When Christian’s phone is stolen it is located in a suburb through a trite plot device - a "find my phone" app. To find the actual thief, he puts an accusatory and reprimanding letter in every person’s mailbox in the building demanding it be returned to a "7-11" near the central train station in Stockholm. A young immigrant boy shows up to demand an apology for the letter.

It turns out that The Square is far from the subject of trust and care and is more concerned with breaking boundaries and abuse within a trendy, clichéd art world told through the megamania of modern gadgets such as cell phones apps and YouTube. Östlund's problematic "imperial gazing"  of a culture ("white, Western, male, and heterosexual, privileging the gaze of the 'master subject' over others") looking at its own subcultures, his representation of women and his fascination with apes - Ann's pet, and Terry Notary's ape mimicry - the film's poster icon - is disturbing dramatic filler for a film awarded a Palme d'Or.

Östlund, Bang, Notary and Moss at Cannes in May.

When accepting his award at Cannes on May 28,  Östlund demanded that the cameras be directed toward the audience who he instructed to give a loud cheer.  Neither the cameras nor the audience did as he requested, at which point he announced, "I am the director, you have to do what I say".  They complied, however reluctantly, but it was an uncomfortable moment for many at the final ceremony of the 70th Anniversary of the Cannes Film Festival.

Östlund has been incorrectly compared to Bergman by critics who have not done their research,  for the only thing the two have in common is that they are directors from Sweden. However,  a Swedish director that comes to mind is Roy Andersson with his tableaux arrangement of vivid and unique scenes with organic unity. Andersson's  award winning films (Songs from the Second Floor, 2000) come from years of making television commercials. Alas, The Square is an attempt to refine staged scenes within a hubristic facade of thematic development.

Ruben Östlund's fascination with apes
© 2017 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 08/16/17
Movie Magazine International