|Discussing THE SQUARE at the NYFF press conference|
Sadly, for me the film didn’t live up to the hype.
The plot of the film follows a museum director as he goes through a difficult period of time, It seems no one is coming to the museum and he needs to get people in. His wallet and cellphone are stolen. His efforts to get them back ends up with him being stalked by a young boy whose parents assume their son is a thief. Then there is an unpleasant You Tube Video, and a needy woman who wants more than a one night stand. It is ultimately an exploration of the series of events the director comes to regret…
And after two and a half hours in the dark I kind of regretted wasting my time, not because its bad but more because the film goes absolutely nowhere and only manages to explore themes which are painfully obvious . The film simply throws idea after idea up but doesn’t do anything with them. What are we supposed to feel? What are we supposed to think? I don’t know, not because the questions are difficult rather because I really can’t believe that director Ruben Ostlund is asking such simplistic questions
Ruben Ostlund said that the film is a mediation on regret and the inability to change things. And while that’s true to a degree the director is often such a self-absorbed jerk he kind of brings much of what happens on himself and we really can’t feel for him and his last minute change of heart. How can we side with him when he is often so distant and disconnected?
We have repeated and unending meditations on our attitudes toward the homeless. How many shots of the homeless do we need? Why do we need multiple shots of the homeless guy being ignore while a woman with a clipboard shouting about “help save a life” while someone is in trouble next to her? Ostlund obsession with the homeless and one in particular that it stops being a talking point but literally becomes a joke as we watch one man sitting wrapped in plastic in the rain.
Notions of rich privilege and disconnection to the world runs rampant in the film. Everyone is self-absorbed and not connected. No one of any stature has no idea what is going on and they only see the world in black and white terms. Its so clumsily handled that all I could think was that Ostlund has had his face so stuck to a his cellphone for years that he didn’t realize that what he was showing us isn’t new or deep but obvious to anyone watching the world.
Worst of these is the films deflation of the art world as being ridiculous (piles of dirt as art) isn’t anything knew since the silliness of it all goes back to the Dadaists and only gotten worse. The questioning of arts pretensions in a film as pretentious as this is a severe danger since in a way it seems like Ostlund is telling us even his film is full of it.
The dquare of the title is a piece of art where people are supposed to be safe. Ostlund repeated a line from the film in the post screening Q&A that we are supposed to make the square a safe place like we make a cross walk a safe place to cross a busy road, but other than tossing a line about it out he never explored the notion in any way. Indeed he co-opts the idea by having a PR firm make a film where a six year olf girl and her kitten are blown up once they step inside it. Its a hell of a viual image but it doesn't help his supposed ideas at all.
I think the biggest problem with the film is that this isn’t really a film but a series of bits rather than a solid narrative. The Square of the title comes from an genuine art installation that is supposed to be a safe place. It was installed in a museum in Sweden. Some how the idea for the film grew out of that. He then added bits of the lives of himself and friends (the threatening notes in the mail boxes and the condom stories are supposedly true) and to them he brought in things like the formal dinner sequence.
All of these bits are good as stand alone blackouts, but they ultimately they are just pieces and don’t connect up to anything really. Worse because Ostlund seems intent on handling the bits with the greatest of care instead the stitching solidifying the narrative, he lets the pieces, such as the letter delivery, go on way way too long.
Some sequences are almost not even connected to the main plot at all. Sequences such as the dinner happen in a vacuum. The dinner, while stunning to a degree, could be removed and not effect the film at all other than you’d have removed the selling point of the film. Other than it happening in the museum it is never referenced on either side of it. Another sequence which is funny but utterly pointless (and not to mention contrived) is the Tourettes Syndrome one. WHat purpose does it serve other than a cheap laugh.
And because the film has no solid through line all we remember if the bits, the letter delivery, the condom bit, the You Tube video and the now legendary dinner sequence. We remember these rather than the whole thus subverting any point the film was making since a pieces there is no point just moments of great filmmaking that .hang in their unsupported by anything.
To me this is best described as an obvious simplistic mediation on the director's belly button with some really good bits. It is in no way a clever as it thinks it is. And while it may have worked in a form 45 to 60 minutes shorter in its current form it’s just too damn long.
(And apropos of nothing-the press conference scene mirrors a good number of movie press conferences I have attended)