Outside Sweden’s X-Royal museum of modern and contemporary art, a worker replaces the bricks in the cobblestone courtyard just so and lies down a luminous string of lights in the shape of a perfectly constructed square. This is the museum’s latest exhibit, one envisioned by Argentinian artist and sociologist, Lola Arias: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
It’s a fine sentiment, one supposed to encourage compassion and humanity but, much like everything else in 2017, what begins as benign quickly becomes divisive and polarizing. Particularly when X-Royal’s curator, Christian (Claes Bang), realizes The Square itself isn’t enough to push the envelope and enlists an ad agency, one run by out-of-touch millennials who are more interested in clicks than understanding the work they promote. And when their viral campaign shows a homeless blond girl being blown-up, everything goes haywire.
But The Square isn’t Christian’s only problem: he’s sleeping with a journalist without bothering to remember her name (played quite well by Elisabeth Moss), trying to extract some kind of vigilante justice in an indifferent world and raise two daughters in a world run by shmucks like him.
He’s stuck in an M.C. Escher painting of his own creation and desperately wants out.
But Christian’s observations are not his own, they are the product of Ruben Östlund, The Square’s writer and director. There is an apocalyptic sense to Östlund’s observations, one that fixates on the disparity of wealth, the constant presence of isolating technology and the often-confusing world of artistic expression — with the movie’s square standing in for the frame of the movie screen.
Östlund is not alone in these observations. Curiously enough, The Square’s head-scratching befuddlement with the modern world shares space with a handful of other films released this year, namely those made by middle-aged white men: mother! from Darren Aronofsky (age 48), Downsizing from Alexander Payne (age 56) and even parts of Justice League from Zack Snyder (age 51). All four movies revolve around technology, yet are terrified by it; are concerned that the world is run by madmen, yet do nothing to change it; and eschew financial wealth, yet require it to bring their visions to fruition.
There are other points of connection — an infatuation with homelessness is the most curious — and all four contain plenty of ambition, not to mention some repugnant solutions. But what is most evident is that they are crafted by middle-aged men who no longer seem to understand the world they helped build and shape. In this regard, we could easily dismiss them as mid-life crisis movies, but maybe we can’t, or shouldn’t.
At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Square took home the top prize, an award that can be read as validation but can also signify relevance. And few films encapsulate 2017 quite like The Square.