Sanctuary of trust and caring

‘The Square’ walks the line between black humor and pathos

NEWFANE — It's common enough - and often tedious - to be subjected to certain perennial topics around contemporary art, specifically art that has slipped its tethers and entered the realms of reflective social commentary.

In Ruben Östlund's The Square, one of the first questions asked in an interview by Christian, the chief curator of X-Royal Museum of avant-garde art in Sweden, is, “If it's in a museum, is it art?”

Oh, dear.

But what if a film is so clever that it actually becomes the art it is describing, an unfolding visual installation, into which we enter if we dare?

In the film, Christian takes his two young daughters to see one of the museum's installations. They stand before a wall with an entranceway on either side. The sign to the left reads, “I mistrust people”; the one to the right, “I trust people.” A counter ticks the number of visitors through the respective doors.

We agonize with the girls as they make their choice, and are relieved to see them choose the better side of human nature. But then, once the girls enter their right-side door, their belief is put to the test.

As is ours, throughout this remarkable film.

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Do Sweden and Vermont share a fundamental desire to help the least fortunate, to be understanding and non-judgmental? To be inclusive, to create a woke society?

What happens when attempts to communicate across all divides with all the best intentions in the world lead to unexpected, unforeseen chaos?

The Square lightly follows a narrative: the escalating repercussions of a foolish decision made by Christian. Puzzling over how to retrieve his stolen cell phone, he brainstorms with a junior member of the museum staff, who playfully suggests a way to solve the problem.

It's not until he's committed to the act that Christian balks, and by then, it's too late. Down the rabbit hole of hilarious cause-and-effect vignettes we go.

In a typical multilayered scene, a baby - brought to a museum staff meeting by its father - cries while the team explores ways of bringing attention to the new conceptual art installation, “The Square.” It is a 3-meter area defined by cobblestones and a lit edge in the plaza in front of a royal palace, replacing an equestrian statue of a monarch, removed in the night.

A plaque reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries we all share equal rights and obligations.”

As we try to tune out the baby's crying in order to concentrate on the adults' conversation, we quickly find that the younger PR talents in the meeting can't abide the tameness of The Square's message. Their idea to bring public attention to the art installation in the form of an ill-advised video is outrageous, but Christian nonchalantly agrees. His decision will lead to a calamity for both the museum and his personal life.

The scenes throughout are built with human interaction on the surface. They take place in settings that reflect the action - often huge, spare areas such as the museum's marbled spaces, a plaza, or shopping-mall elevators in which the individual is dwarfed and aimless. Disconcerting music knocks us even more off kilter.

Under that are simultaneous occurrences, like the baby, or as when a sexual encounter is taking a weird turn, being discussed in the museum in front of a huge sculpture of plastic and metal chairs that shudders to a disturbing soundtrack, as if it were all about to tumble down.

Often we are only given enough visual information to focus on one aspect, limited to a character's perspective, puzzled by or tolerant of distractions.

Then, going deeper, themes arise around the depictions of homelessness and “beggars,” immigrants, the privileged, us and them, the foundations of a decent and caring society. And how precariously it holds together.

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I suspect the energy of the audience watching The Square is going to impact the viewer's experience dramatically. The film walks the line between black humor and pathos. We are held captive every bit as much as are the characters, moving between many emotions, prodded constantly into uncomfortable situations, not knowing whether to burst out laughing or be appalled. Or be appalled when we do burst out laughing.

Just behind the thin veneer of civilization lurks the Beast, always in the shadows, always patrolling the edge of our collective consciousness.

In a haunting scene, the museum hosts a huge black-tie gala for wealthy donors. The artistic entertainment includes a man who portrays an alpha-male ape. At first, the museum patrons are amused by his antics. But as the enactment continues, subtle shifts occur, until our laughter directed toward individuals being ridiculed turns to collective intimidation.

The duration of some scenes in The Square can be extended into uncomfortable lengths, and we want out of the awkward situation and onto the next interesting thing. Yet, the timing is intentional. Only take up the key to unlock the door of metaphor, and ideas and meanings come cascading out of every episode.

Remember in A Streetcar Named Desire the old woman calling through the dark streets, selling “flores, flores para los muertos” - flowers for the dead - and that quiet slap in the face that comes from an unexpected quarter? In The Square, this subtle Greek chorus is a dramatic cry for help throughout, loud at first, repeated in different scenes, until it becomes soft and impossible to locate by the film's end, calling all around us in the very air.

Where do moral abstractions fail us, in the face of intimidation and power? What happens to our shared ethics when individual courage is in short supply? When does our well-meaning decency turn a blind eye to ethical wrongs? How do we create a successful sanctuary of trust and caring?

The questions are stark; the answers, uncertain.

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