Scandinavia is hot right now – and that’s not something that they’re used to that far north. The design aesthetic that found its roots in the Bauhaus movement has grown into a giant Nordic tree. Brands like Ikea and H&M are easily recognizable across the world and both trace their roots back to the northern lands. One of the new chic cafe chains outlets I’ve been frequenting, Joe and the Juice, emphasizing beautiful design, beautiful people, and crazy expensive juices, traces its roots back to Copenhagen. From art, architecture, design, and political involvement, it would be difficult to think that the Vikings inhabited the same countries as these global hipster pioneers. Film has been an especially viable outlet for the Scandinavian countries to demonstrate their taste in design culture. Filmmakers like Lars Von Trier and Nicholas Winding Refn are buzz-word directors that usually can prompt their own entire discussion if brought up amongst the right crew. Their attention to detail and focus on composition and mise-en-scen has made them well-respected in the art house world. One might think they could gain a complex from all of this unnecessary praise, some kind of haughty behavior would grow from their over-generosity. That criticism of an upper-class, sophists, pseudo-altruism comes in the form of The Square, a film by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund (at least he’s got a sense of humor). What Ostlund does in (almost) two and a half hours pays homage to the great cinematic experimenters of the past, especially Bunuel: he takes a piece of society that we have many assumptions about and then spins us around until we’re experiencing the film through kaleidoscopic dizziness, only to dissipate the haze much, much later and ultimately realize how clemency has it’s limits when you’re dealing with a particular demographic.
The Square plays less off specific characters and more off of specific archetypes and leading the pack is our wealthy altruist: Christian. Christian represents everything idealized about Scandinavia. He’s tall, dark, handsome, drives a nice, environmentally-conscious Tesla, and tries his best to promote the moral virtues of democratic socialism. But their is an heir of inauthenticity to Christian’s charitable ways. In one scene, Christian is walking through a community square (the motif is pretty ubiquitous), when he is approached by a woman who screams at him that she fears for her life. She claims that some guy is going to kill her in some sort of domestic scuffle. Christian looks a bit shell-shocked himself and he and another white-collar passerby get roped into helping this strange woman out, albeit hesitantly. Sure enough, a man comes charging at her and the two men intercede by holding him back. Immediately, he backs away and the Christian and his accomplice partake in a jovial embrace. They spend a few minutes following the encounter rehashing their heroism and generally patting themselves on the back for their (practically nonexistent) interaction. It’s this excessive self-praise that Ostlund takes issue with – especially when it’s not deserved. From the perspective of The Square, men like Christian are far too fixated with how their altruistic behavior affects their own image. They’re sophisticated, high-functioning, wealthy members of society who understand their socioeconomic position and how “giving back” is an expectation of affluence. But that’s the problem. They embark on these charitable endeavors because that’s what wealthy people do. Like his Armani sport-coat or his scarf, Christian wears his generosity on his sleeve like its fashionable. And, the thing is: it is. It’s cool to give back and be proud of it. As much as Christian tries of feign interest in the disenfranchised communities beneath him, he let’s the petty first-world problems he encounters on a regular basis plague him instead.
The big impetus of most of Christian’s troubles lie in the follow up to his encounter with the domestic scuffle in the town square. Because for all his self-aggrandizing platitudes, Christian leaves the square realizing that his wallet and phone are missing. We all know how losing your phone in this day and age can, in some circles, be akin to losing a pet, and for Christian, this feeling is perhaps even stronger. Instead of using the breadth of his resources to purchase a new phone, Christian embarks on a crusade to retrieve his phone and shame whoever stole it. Provoked by his assistant, he writes up a threatening letter and drives all the way out to a less-fortunate area of town (the “Stockholm Projects”) in his brand new Tesla, only to fumble when asked to distribute them throughout the apartment complex. The problem? It could be dangerous! Any of Christian’s interactions with those of a lower socio-economic rung, benevolent or malicious, have to be performed with the safety of a glove. Which completely dismantles the entire premise of “The Square”, a place where any and all preconceived notions are meant to be dismantled. Christian, as erudite as he is (and dresses), fails to notice this simple fact. But it’s not really Christian’s fault. He’s apart of a bigger problem – he’s inside a satisfying bubble.
The problem is, there’s a group of people, who pride themselves on their benevolence towards those of a less-fortunate standing. It’s a kind of pseudo-altruism, based on the championing of one’s own contributions, where people loudly go “Look how generous I am!”. And generous the Scandinavians are. In terms of charitable, benevolent nations, they rank amongst the most popular. They are consistently ranked amongst the happiest countries, with the highest quality of life, and cleanest quality of living. With all that prestige from the international community, it’s a bit difficult not to be a bit haughty. But somehow they manage. In fact, throughout the region, it is a cultural faux pas to deviate from humility by boasting about one’s achievements. In reality (as Ostlund so apt displays), this is merely a formality. For what these compassionate intellectuals don’t say with their impressively sharp English accents, they display with the status symbols available to them. While they are quick to find opportunities to extend a helping hand to disadvantaged communities, they do so while wearing safety gloves. As Christian illustrates, they are painfully unaware of this paradox. This large amalgamation of clueless sophists have trapped themselves in a stylized, Nordic bubble – perhaps in this instance, more of a square. The square that Christian is promoting is the same square he’s caught himself in – an entity meant to promote egalitarian values and dismantle hierarchy, which really serves as more of a protective border from the have’s and the have not’s.
But that tale has been explored time and time again. Inequality is an oft-discussed contemporary issue and it’s cinematic roots have created many a bloomed masterpieces. One of which is Luis Bunuel’s masterpiece, Exterminating Angel. In it, a dinner party is held for a group of wealthy French dignitaries. They enjoy a ornate meal where they trade comments about the state of society, because they have the most admitted sway over the way that events will unfold. The dinner concludes normally and then, as the guests are preparing to leave, they can’t. They find themselves…ahem, boxed in. For no discernible circumstance, the dinner guests can’t seem to find the willpower to make their way to the door – as if some supernatural curse is weighing heavily over them. Soon, a state of panic ensues. The people who spend their days playing croquet with the global economy in the balance are unable to turn a doorknob and exit a building. Like a marshmallow in the microwave, they begin to feel the heat and pressure causing them to reveal a bit more of their true nature. All societal niceties and cultural expectations erode and in it’s place, much more animalistic, instinctual human interactions begin to take place.
Eventually, the partygoers are faced with a harsh reality: their surrealist trap has some very dire elements of reality intertwined within. As the chaos progresses, one of the elderly patrons dies and their sense of urgency to escape increases. A couple locks themselves away and joins in a joint suicide pact. With their mortality facing them, the rest of the guests begin to dismantle the house in search of access to the outside world. After away at the foundations of the house and each other, these haut-bourgeoisie guests actually begin to turn on each other and consider sacrificing one another in the hopes that some supernatural element will intervene. Eventually, they do solve their predicament. But only once their posh exteriors have been eroded and a much more self-serving reality sets in. In Bunuel’s film, the guests are power players in a society where increasing inequality is creating a mounting social anxiety. They chummily toy with the future of the country with this formal dinner party. And why not? If you’re going to share ideas over a meal, it might as well be one that reflects your grandiosity. But the principles in Exterminating Angel follow that of The Square, perhaps a bit more bluntly: there’s a sense of inauthenticity to their benevolence. Interestingly enough, all it takes for them to reveal their true form is being trapped in a confined space, say a (square) room, and their true feelings are revealed. A simple dining room becomes a jungle in a matter of moments and Bunuel has successfully deconstructed notions of class built up as old as time.
Which is perfectly paralleled in the big stand-out scene in The Square. In it, a group of guests, including Christian, gather at a big, ritzy dinner ceremony to celebrate the museum’s successes. During their dinner, they were treated to a performance art piece involving an in-house artist who was doing a performance which involved mimicking and embodying a primate. So this dining room setting becomes a literal jungle. Or your average fast food play-place. Both places, especially the latter, are raw stomping grounds for disgusting germs and animal behavior. In this case, a man named Oleg wanders through the black tie audience fumbling through tables and guests, knocking over chairs and tables as he goes. He becomes this terrifying monstrous figure, whose dedication to his craft terrifies his audience. They look at him as they look at their beneficiaries – with amusement and appreciation, but they still try to avoid any direct contact with him. It’s that, “I’m too good to be associated with you directly” mentality that ultimately dooms them. Oleg ends up breaking their personal space barrier and – just like in Exterminating Angel – they begin to shed their elitist exterior in favor of a more instinctual response.
Clearly ‘the Square’, for as open and welcoming as it’s supposed to be, is limiting and only has enough room for those able to understand it’s self-indulging significance. There’s really nothing wrong with a little self-indulging every once in a while! What else is social media really good for? But it helps to own up to it. What Ostlund does with The Square is playing off what Bunuel did before him with Exterminating Angel. They bring you into the world of a celebrated class of very classy folks, only to expose a level of inauthenticity that has dogged that group since the beginning of time. Neither director presents their case without giving their own exceptions. Certain characters, like Christian’s boss, are perfect examples of what upstanding individuals do with their position. Conversely, some that Christian help aren’t exactly innocent either (one woman decides that she gets to be picky when offered a free gas station meal). But these are nuances put in place to reinforce the greater narrative. Because Ostlund lives it to some degree. He knows the art world in Sweden and he knows the Christians of that world that do exist. Through this film, he’s trying to draw the outline of his own ‘square’, while providing you plenty of evidence for not entering it. We live in a world where we’re encouraged so often to be as charitable as we have room to be, but too often we’re also encouraged to make others aware of it. The idea of the glory is often much more appealing than the act itself. Ostlund and Bunuel box these characters in like a scientist with a microscope. They’re put in these environments to see how they react under pressure and we, as the audience see them transform. Whilst there’s no squares in the real world, there very well could be. It’s the possibility that they want you to realize is there. It’s their way of keeping you aware. Because most of us see The Square and will scrutinize Christian as we should. There are ‘Squares‘ all throughout the real world and some will present themselves more boldly than others. The best we can do it not box ourselves in.