There’s a thrilling scene at the beginning of The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and opens in select theaters next Friday. Christian (Claes Bang), the sophisticated curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, is walking through a bustling plaza on the way to work, when, from outside the frame, we hear the shrill cries of a young woman. A few people turn around, but continue walking. The cries for help persist. They grow louder. And yet fewer and fewer people stop. As the woman rushes into the frame, it’s only Christian and another man who hang back to hear her out. Eventually, her aggressor rushes into the frame as well, although by then Christian and his companion have formed a human barricade to shield the girl. After minimal shoving, the aggressor abruptly calms down, gives up and walks away. So does the girl. Christian and the other man, adrenalized from the confrontation, embrace, celebrate, pat each other on the back. Soon, the man is on his way. But when Christian reaches the next intersection, he realizes his wallet and phone are missing. The event was a charade. Christian had been pickpocketed.
The scene sets into motion the movie’s two main plotlines. In Christian’s personal life, he conspires with a coworker to shove notes into every mailbox in a building where they’d tracked his phone, threatening the thieves lest they turn in what they’d stolen to a local 7/11. In his professional life, he goes about commissioning a PR company—essentially, two prototypically pretentious and tech-savvy millennials—to work on promoting a new performance art exhibit, called The Square: a small square outlined by inlaid brick and a band of light outside the museum, meant as “a sanctuary for trust and caring,” within which “we all share equal rights and obligations.” You might recognize such idealistic language; that’s because The Square is, quite literally, a safe space.
The movie The Square is about many things, certainly, but it is perhaps most preoccupied with questions pertaining to these “safe” spaces, both physical and emotional, and what happens when those spaces are violated. The characters are needled with constant entreaties for assistance, from beggars, coworkers and the like; nary a conversation goes by without an interruption of some kind, from a crying baby or ringing phone or, in one hilarious instance, expletives from a man with Tourettes. The art museum provides an apt setting for all of this, of course, because it’s a space where otherwise inappropriate objects—like piles of gravel—become imbued with the appropriate meaning. Curators, in a sense, act as gatekeepers of simulated violations.
Christian’s personal plotline and professional plotline both end in darkly comic ways. In an attempt to create a viral video for The Square, the young PR people subvert its original intention (how they do so is shockingly funny, so I won’t reveal that here). And while Christian manages to reclaim his stolen goods, he also must deal with the unintended consequences of his plan—namely, a young boy who threatens to create chaos in his life for calling him a thief and getting him in trouble with his parents. Christian’s brash treatment of the boy, combined with the fact that he is ostensibly Arab, can be seen, perhaps, as part of a larger message about the Syrian refugee crisis—people who were forced from a dangerous space to a safe one where others nonetheless perceive them as dangerous.
With red wire-rimmed glasses, loose scarves and well-fitting suits, Claes Bang, as Christian, is the epitome of the art world dandy, at ease with the world and his place in it. And yet there is an air of dishevelment about him—a five o’clock shadow, a stray lock of thick black hair, hungover eyes—that intensifies as the movie goes on. A subplot involves a romantic tryst with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American journalist who has a minor infatuation with Christian. (The movie is partly in Swedish and partly in English.) Their sex scene is at turns viscerally real and intellectually absurd. Suffice it to say, lines are crossed in the bedroom as well.
If his past movies are any indication, director Ruben Östlund is curious about stripping the pretenses off of modern society to get at the ugly root of our humanity. In Force Majeure, another deeply funny drama, the filmmaker wonders what would happen if, in the event of a potentially life-threatening avalanche, a husband bails on his family to save himself, thereby exposing the evolutionary will to survive that overrides any obligation to his loved ones. In The Square’s gripping, edge-of-your-seat climax, a piece of performance art, involving a man who acts like an ape set loose in a ballroom, reveals our basest instincts through violence. The haughty, tuxedoed sophisticates become no less animal than the monkey man.
There is a meta aspect to this, too. As viewers, we’ve drawn our squares, so to speak, and have our own expectations of decorum in the world of the movie upended. Whether the performance art going awry was part of the performance art itself, or just part of the movie, is never fully resolved. This is certainly part of the fun—of The Square, especially, and other movies, generally. But it’s also cause for introspection: in our PC-policed culture, is it possible to reserve some spaces for X, some for Y, some for Z, so on and so forth? The satirical genius of The Square is not only that it renders these boundaries meaningless, but that it scoffs at the the question altogether. Left to our most basic instincts, we’re all inherently invasive. There can be no safe spaces—not where humans are involved.