Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 30, 2017

The Square

Filed under: art,Film — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm

Among the batch of DVD’s received from Magnolia, a film distribution company specializing in edgy independent films, was one called “The Square” that I nearly discarded since I assumed that it was the very fine documentary about Tahrir Square. I probably should have remembered that the film was made in 2013. Sigh, how time flies when you’re not having fun.

Instead, this is a new Swedish narrative film currently being shown at the IFC Center and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center that is wickedly entertaining. Directed by  Ruben Östlund, it stars Claes Bang as Christian, the director of an ultra-modern art museum that is the Swedish version of the Whitney in N.Y. It is a combination of a morality tale and satirical sketches only loosely connected to the plot.

At a dinner party celebrating the opening of a show titled “The Square” that is based on liberal bromides about people trusting each other, a muscular bare-chested performance artist named Oleg begins stalking the men and women in formal wear as if he were a chimpanzee. He walks on all fours using a device that is attached to his arms and makes his ape-like perambulations both realistic and frightening. His lower teeth protrude from his lips giving every indication that they are capable of tearing off a piece of flesh. He was hired for the event to supposedly educate the crowd about not allowing someone’s appearance to prejudge their worth. Oleg, I should add, is played by Terry Notary who trained the actors in the recent round of Planet of the Apes films how to move.

At first, he seems harmless, walking around sticking his finger in a tuxedoed man’s ear or jumping on top of a table and howling. As his behavior becomes more threatening, a hush descends on the gathering that is clearly becoming worried about what Oleg will do next. When he squares off against the largest man there in an imitation of the kind of alpha male rivalry that takes place in chimpanzee bands, it results in the man fleeing for his life. It has begun to dawn on the wealthy liberals there that Oleg has jumped the shark.

In another scene, Christian—who is the homo sapiens version of the dominant male in a chimpanzee band—hooks up with an American reporter for a one-night stand. (She is played by Elisabeth Moss, best known for playing Peggy Olson in “Mad Men”.) While waiting for her in bed, he spots an actual chimpanzee walking nonchalantly around the living room where he finally takes a seat on the sofa and begins thumbing through an art journal. It is a perfect moment.

We also see a British artist who is apparently based on Julian Schnabel, one of the biggest assholes in the art world, giving a talk to the same kinds of people in a private lecture at the museum. It is likely they are major donors. I was puzzled by the artist wearing pajamas as he lectures the audience but learned just as I began writing this review that Schnabel is in the habit of giving speeches in pajamas as well. As he begins his pompous and meaningless explanation of his work, someone in the audience begins yelling “asshole”, “scumbag”, “get the fuck out of here”, etc. every 30 seconds or so. When people in the audience begin to murmur nervously, someone pipes up that the poor fellow has Tourette’s and should be tolerated. That, of course, allows him to continue his assault on the artist. We are left wondering whether it is the Tourette’s speaking or just him sounding off on a self-important idiot.

I should add that the real Julian Schnabel gets taken down in a documentary in the same spirit as “The Square”. Titled “Guest of Cindy Sherman”, it can be rented for $3.99—a bargain at twice the price.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Christian’s attempt to retrieve his wallet, smartphone, and cufflinks that were pickpocketed from him in a con game near the museum. When his assistant discovers the stolen phone’s signal in a housing project obviously occupied by the very people the upcoming show is supposedly designed to solidarize with, the two go there late at night to put flyers in the mailbox of all the residents demanding the return of his property or else. He eventually regains the property but also the unwelcome attention of a swarthy 11-year old boy who demands that he apologize for accusing him of theft. After seeing the flyer, his parents assumed that he was the guilty party and punished him. The youth has a way of putting Christian on the defensive and making his hypocrisy about human solidarity painfully obvious.

Ruben Östlund’s last film was “Force Majeure” that dealt with a similar theme, the moral failings of a handsome and successful man who abandons his wife and children when an avalanche plows into the ritzy ski resort they are vacationing in. His work is not overtly political but it sheds light on the tendencies of bourgeois society to make us act like animals. Indeed, despite the argument that we are a step ahead of our ancestors the chimpanzee, one might conclude that we come in a distant second-best.

1 Comment »

  1. Hi Louis,

    Glad to see you enjoyed ‘The Square’ as much as I did. Can’t resist sending you my take. Happy New Year!

    Christian is the respected CEO in charge of exhibitions at one of Sweden’s state museums. ‘The Square’ will put him on the rack in a polite Swedish way. The title refers to an exhibit promoted by Christian of avant-garde contemporary art. It has the moral intention of urging the viewer to altruism. The film will show that this programatic and abstract incitement to do good is out of tune with life just now in the developed world. Another exhibit that Christian organizes, piles of earth fussily arranged, is meant as homage to the basic ingredients of life. The object of a third is to test the nerves and tolerance of a social elite by loosening a violent savage among them. It would, however, be a mistake to see ‘The Square’ as a satire of the latest fashions in gallery offerings. Contemporary art is only one contradictory element in life today.


Another is our indifference to what happens to those around us. Charity has to be legislated, put into law–or promoted by expensive art–to have traction. We won’t stop in the street to help someone in distress. There’s a contradiction too in the beggars and rough sleepers that corrode the gleaming city. We treat the poor like an inferior race struck down with the plague. Looking hard at Christian and people like him reveals the biggest contradiction of all. They have buried violence so deeply within themselves that they are baffled when others touch them with it in everyday life. If pushed, the respectable respond in kind, sometimes hysterically. Guilt without consequences follows.

    Thus Christian, a victim of robbery, delights in retaliation that brings him into direct contact with people he has in his upper class way kept at arm’s length. He ends shaken and aggressively guilty. His sex life is put into question by a young woman who won’t stop asking questions. Even his children, barely toddlers, have doubts about his stumbling altruism. Though challenging his own class in the exhibits he creates, Christian shelters in their respectability when he should stand up for principle.

    ‘The Square’ does a superb job of mapping the confusions in our advanced societies. Setting these out, Ostlund’s narrative can be patchy, a series of tableaux always interesting but somewhat arbitrary. He’s a housebroken Luis Bunuel. His relevance is to demonstrate that the moral demands on us are urgent but never clear or unambiguous.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — January 1, 2018 @ 2:05 pm

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