The Square, Directed by Ruben Östlund, 2017 [negotiating repressed and active libidinal energies]

“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” These are the words inscribed on the small bronze plaque that sits in front of the artwork which the film’s title refers to: a square in the courtyard of the X-Royal Museum’s grand building, illuminated by a glowing tube, snuggly inset into the brick work.

The Square, then, differs from The Square, indeed differs from the rectangle of the screen that contains The Square, which houses a multitude of shapes. Some sublime, some uncomfortable, some witty, some cynical. The range of shapes is shown to us immediately as we open on Christian (Claes Bang): slim, well-dressed and handsome, contorted into an uncomfortable looking position as he naps on the sofa in his office. He looks charmingly dishevelled, the way bourgeoise people can get away with. A few items surround him: an empty coffee cup, a picture of a nude woman in a magazine peeps from below the red sofa, books form his back drop. Shortly after this opening shot, we see Christian sit for an interview with Anne (Elizabeth Moss) who asks questions that set up various thematic strands that both obviously and subtly weave throughout the film. The scene is shot in a manner that divides Christian and Anne as both are framed separately from one another as they speak, unlike shot-reverse-shot which integrates and includes the other body into the action. Behind Christian is an artwork, a white neon sign stating “YOU HAVE NOTHING”, and behind Anne sit piles of gravel which we will later learn are artworks by Julian (Dominic West). Anne asks two questions, the first concerning money and funding. Christian responds by expressing that the X-Royal enters a competitive art market in order to secure works to show in public, works that might otherwise fall into private hands and thus have very limited exposure. The value of work is therefor brought into the film’s consciousness from the beginning. Money -or lack of – is awash throughout, both in and outside the gallery walls. Images of homeless people penetrate the frame from the start, and later become literally part of the conversation surrounding the gallery and its responsibility. Christian is portrayed as someone free from economic burden, with money never appearing as an issue for him. Though he might have moments of understanding his social position, it appears to largely pass him by. At one point later in the film, Christian asks a homeless man to look after his bags of designer clothes in a mall as he goes to look for his daughters. This occurs mere moments after he has told the man he has no change to give him. This is one of many instances where Christian finds himself in need of help from others. Established as he is, The Square consistently describes its central male protagonist as being a lacking-subject who demonstrates a kind of failed masculinity. As with the father character in Ruben Östlund’s previous film Force Majeure (2014), the cracks at the seams of a masculine identity widen throughout the film, until the character is somewhat shattered. The museum’s name – X-Royal – works to further underpin such a situation. To be once royal and now not speaks to a defunct position, a power that one might have once possessed but which has now been taken away. Without a throne one is relegated to be just like everyone else. In this sense, the museum’s name prophesises Christian’s fall from grace, evidenced by the end of the film when he resigns from his position as director. Going back to the interview scene, the first chink in Christian’s armour could be Anne’s second question in her interview where she asks Christian to clarify an obscure “art-speak” passage she found on the museum’s website. Amusingly, Christian himself appears be fairly baffled by the statement, and hesitantly and unconvincingly attempts to unpack and answer her query. The “art-world”, emblemised by Christian and X-Royal, is in part sealed up by this kind of overly complicated language, and Christian’s unsure response shows that such pretentions function to obscure rather than to clarify. A sex scene later between Anne and Christian also contends to undress part of Christian’s identity as he is again shown to be somewhat ineffectual. This scene too, despite being a sexual act, lacks a certain libidinal economy, though other moments which describe a tension between a sealed civility and a libidinal drive are scattered throughout the film. These moments include examples of people allowing a façade of graciousness to slip such as when the crowd at the show’s opening start rushing to the food-buffet, causing the chef to restore order by shouting at them to slow down – his emotional energy breaking through his otherwise polite tone. The central moment that demonstrates a break between the civilised and the libidinal comes from the (now already) infamous performance art scene, set in the large and grand dining room of the museum. The uncomfortability of this scene is prefaced and reflected in an earlier scene involving a man with Tourette’s interrupting a question and answer session between a gallery director Sonja (Annica Liljeblad) and artist Julian. Here, the formal conversation between Sonja and Julian is repeatedly punctuated by the compulsive speech of the man suffering from Tourette’s. “Show us your tits”, “cock” and other such profanities cut through the atmosphere, otherwise hushed with polite attentiveness to Julian’s onanistic musings about his own work. In the dining room scene, a performance takes place whereby artist Oleg (Terry Notary) challenges the diners as he act like a wild animal, a monkey unhindered by physical or social restraints. The animalistic yelps and shrieks he omits pierce the uneasy and stringent manners of the diners who all avoid eye contact. They stare into their empty plates, not wanting to be the object of Oleg’s attention, even when this means allowing him to harass and upset other people at their table. In both these scenes, tolerance is called for in the face of absurdity, soon making the tolerance itself unsavoury and absurd. Though this tolerance is more easily legitimised in regards to the man with Tourette’s as his disruption is beyond his conscious control, the way in which tolerance is enacted during the performance in the dining room becomes as problematising as the performance itself. The conservative sensibility of the bourgeoisie is unable to respond or cope with the libidinal blot caused by the contingency sprung from both situations. Because the gallery encourages and entertains this repressed civility of the middle-class European visitors, these acts which break the sheen of refined behaviour also function as the ever-present but inexpressible voice of the visitors who are silenced by their egos in their chambers of subjectivity. That is, the Tourette’s outbreaks and the animalistic performance vocalise the unspoken, unconscious libido of the room. If we accept this analysis, we can find comparisons with moments in Spike Lee’s films, notably the outbreaks of prejudice in Do the Right Thing (1989) and 25th Hour (2002). Though the “outbreaks” in Spike Lee’s films use a different cinematic rhetoric, notably breaking the fourth-wall by directly addressing the camera and audience, they also function to describe a libidinal or at least un-civilised energy that brews beneath the surface of the characters being portrayed.

“Help”, the young woman screams as Oleg attempts to mount her during his performance in the dining room, breaching an invisible contract of personal space. Viewing becomes particularly painful here, as we witness the stillness within which the other visitors remain. “Help”: the word fills the room, it scars the stilled air between the down turned faces, their temples held between fingertips like vices. It feels like a long time until this call is met with a response, and “help” is an word echoed over and over, through the narrative corridors, ricocheting off surfaces from a plethora of voices. Men, women, children, homeless people, and thieves all utter the word that is rarely met with sufficient comfort. “Help” is apparently something you can ask for inside the artwork The Square, though pointedly, along with the equality it also proclaims, this is never tested. Perhaps the closest thing witnessed to equality does not occur in The Square but in a square nonetheless. Near the end of the film Christian watches his eldest daughter perform a routine with her cheerleading squad. Dressed in their identical team outfits the girls move in sync, lift each other up and allow each other to fall back into clasped and cupped armed, falls based on trust, synchronicity set by teamwork. Though showing an energetic and celebratory act, this scene remains within the film’s sterility and distance created by its unwavering aesthetics. The mise-en-scene is always well-curated, clean and clear, hygienic even, like how I imagine an advert for expensive mineral water would look, selling you a concept of purity. This mode of image-making appears to encompass a specifically Scandinavian sensibility, hanging effortlessly and elegantly like Cos clothing on a thin body. Even disruptive moments such as the Tourette’s scene previously mentioned encourage awkwardness but not disgust, an uneasiness that can maintain the sealed lines of a repressed body, close-to-the-bone but never bloody.

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