The Square (2017)
I'm not saying the movie is marvelously offensive. I'm saying that the movie is a well-deserved R. There's a pretty intense and extended sex scene with an awkward aftermath. There's a good amount of cursing. A young homeless girl is blown up using intentionally bad special effects. Also, there's a sequence with a guy with Tourette's. Like, you know...R.
DIRECTOR: Ruben Östlund
My wife fell asleep. I loved it. I hope there's no correlation there. For a guy who is always preaching about the value of art and passion, I really like stories that kind of crap all over the world of art. Appropriately, one of my favorite plays that I've read and directed is Yazmina Reza's Art. This movie toes that fine line. I think that's what I like about this movie so much. It might hole my exact philosophy of art and that is that, while it is great, it shouldn't take itself too seriously.
It's almost unfair to judge this movie as a whole piece. The movie is more a matter of an exploration of tone. The movie follows Claes Bang, who portrays Christian, throughout his frustrations with being an art museum curator. Christian, for the most part, is a pretty great guy. This is what makes him compelling. He's a pretty good guy who screws up from time to time. He does nothing out of ill will, but keeps on making some really realistic dumb calls. I often found myself calling him a moron, but then realizing that I don't know what I would have done in a similar situation. His choices are the wrong choices, but they are also remarkably human. When I had my laptop stolen when I was in college, I tried a very similar maneuver that he did. I knew out of a large group of people, one of them had to have it. So I pretended that I knew who had it. For me, it just ended with me not actually knowing who did it and not getting my laptop back. For Christian, he ends up in a world of crap. It's a movie about unintended consequences over seemingly innocent decisions. Perhaps that might be more horrifying than what the filmmakers intended. Christian never really makes bad decisions, but he should have thought his decisions out. No decisions were all that bad, but if he just took another two seconds to think of how that might have played out, much of the movie could have been avoided. I love that so much. I don't know why. I don't like when characters do overtly awful things, most of the time. (I just watched The Florida Project and I'll talk about that then.) But Christian is a good man for the most part who ends up doing some subjectively awful things. He ends up pushing a kid down the stairs. The worst part is that I think that I might have pushed that kid down the stairs. (Watch the movie, he totally deserved it.) But it is also a reflection of a selfish culture. I can't say that the director is making an overt criticism of the state of the culture, but much of Christian's problem lies with the fact that society asks him to watch out for himself. It does not like to be stirred and offended, but that might be the role of art itself. There's a LIGHTLY SPOILERY moment at the end where Christian is asked to apologize for something that his museum produced that might be considered offensive. He resigns for the good of the museum, but then is accused of insulting the nature of art. There have been artistic controversies in my lifetime that I wish hadn't happened. But art is meant to challenge and it is really interesting that this movie is a commentary about the nature of commentary.
What I love most about this movie is that Östlund has created a tonally perfect film for what I am actually watching. This movie could have been extraordinarily heavy handed, but it instead knows that comedy works. I contrast The Square to Three Billboards in the fact that Östlund uses jokes to maintain the proper mood of the movie. There's some heavy stuff. Nothing too heavy, mind you. Not like Three Billboards, but it knows when it needs to lighten up and when it needs to double down on the intensity. The promotional artwork that is on the poster and on all of the digital download stuff is from a scene that barely involves the protagonist. Rather, it is this vignette about the nature of controversial art. The movie lets me often know that art is for the old, where it rarely serves to challenge anymore. The movie is full of grey hairs and how they interact with art as a social occasion. Terry Notary, who seems to be amazing at playing apes in movies, does this wildly uncomfortable performance piece that epitomizes why this movie works on the level it does. Notary's performance, at first, is extremely hilarious. A shirtless man embraces that he is an ape (which is foreshadowed throughout the movie) and all of the old benefactors find it charming. Notary as an ape is pleasant, until he is not pleasant. The entire thing seems like a Disney show about a jungle tour that always presents fake danger. But real art can be dangerous and that's what Notary's Oleg presents. When he gets aggressive, this light piece almost becomes a horror movie. There's this narrative about how frightened we get of danger and dangerous scenarios. All of the people at the table freeze and put their heads down as to avoid confrontation with Oleg. It is remarkable, and I think that this is completely accurate, that people forget that Oleg is just a man pretending to be a gorilla and fear this beast because he had crossed that line in performance art that makes this a show and becomes a moment in time. He accosts a woman and only after the show has gone on far too long does anyone stop him. There's a moment AND THIS IS FULL ON SPOILERY, where I wonder if they beat him to death. Yet this scene belongs in the movie. I get why they put the still on the poster because it is haunting. But that is how a director balances intensity and comedy. The scene works in the right order and that's what Three Billboards needed to learn.
I'm going to be preachy about this movie, but I do have to give some other criticism. The movie isn't perfect. I can see why my wife fell asleep. I often mention that I'm sometimes cool with boring. For me, the movie flew by. It was the fastest moving two and a half hours because the movie was almost a series of vignettes. I can get behind episodic adventures sooner than I can long periods where nothing happens. But I also have to be aware that the movie really is just two and a half hours about people discussing art and philosophy. It's odd that Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West are in this movie because they don't really need to be. I love that it adds to the the completely American legitimacy of the whole piece, but they do really stand out for me. I'm not saying that they are a good thing. I'm not saying that they are a bad thing. It does take me out of the reality of the movie, but their performances are great and kind of fun. (Dominic West doesn't really fit in the movie, but it is fun seeing McNulty talk about art and I really like him as an actor. Elizabeth Moss is actually somewhat integral to the plot and she's an absolutely phenomenal actress, so I tend to forgive.) But again, this is a movie about art and how silly it is, which is a deep sense of irony because this art talking about art. I also acknowledge how it also hits a very specific sweet spot for me because I love this kind of film. It's super snobby while being accessible. I don't know who else will love this. I feel the need to justify that I'm not loving it ironically, but rather as one of my favorite movies this year. Yeah, the snob in me is getting fed, but I don't feel bad about this one.
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Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.