The Square (2017 film)
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Ruben Östlund|
|Written by||Ruben Östlund|
Jacob Secher Schulsinger
|Distributed by||TriArt Film (Sweden)|
|Box office||$8.6 million|
The Square is a 2017 satirical drama film written and directed by Ruben Östlund and starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and Terry Notary. The film is about a curator (Bang) who struggles with various personal issues, including the theft of his mobile phone and affair with a journalist (Moss). Amid these distractions, a controversial promotional video for an art installation is published without his oversight, threatening his career and sparking a debate about freedom of expression and political correctness.
A Swedish production with co-production support from Germany, France and Denmark, the film was shot in Gothenburg, Stockholm and Berlin. The story was partly inspired by an installation Östlund and producer Kalle Boman had made. Östlund was also inspired by a notorious incident involving Oleg Kulik and cast Notary in a parody, drawing on Notary's experience imitating apes.
The film was entered into the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, where it received positive reviews and won the Palme d'Or. It was subsequently selected for the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. It went on to win six European Film Awards, including Best Film; two Guldbagge Awards, including Best Director; and other honours. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards.
Christian is the curator of the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, formerly the Royal Palace. He is interviewed by the journalist Anne, struggling to explain museum jargon. Later, he is pulled into a confrontation in a pedestrian zone, after which Christian notices that his smartphone and wallet are missing, presumably stolen in a confidence trick. He is able to track the position of his phone on his computer, which he and his assistant Michael trace to a large apartment block. They write a threatening anonymous letter demanding the return of the phone and wallet by depositing them at a nearby 7-Eleven. Christian throws a copy of the letter in each apartment mailbox at night. Several days later, a package for Christian is actually deposited at the store, containing the phone and the completely untouched wallet.
Euphoric after the success of his plan, Christian goes to a party where he meets Anne again, and ends up in her apartment. After they have sex, Anne offers to throw away his used condom but he steadfastly refuses to hand it over to her. They argue over the situation, as she believes he does not trust her to dispose of the semen rather than take it. Several days later, she meets him in the museum and states she is looking for more than casual sex. She asks him if he feels the same, but he is evasive. When Anne later tries to call him, he does not pick up the phone.
The day after picking up the package containing his phone and wallet, Christian is informed that a second package has arrived for him at the 7-Eleven. Suspicious, he sends Michael to pick it up. In the store, Michael is confronted by a young boy who states that his parents believe that he is a thief because of the letter and demands that Christian apologize to him and his family. Otherwise, the boy threatens to create "chaos" for Christian.
Later, the boy visits Christian's home and confronts him on the staircase. Christian tries to send him away, but the boy begins to knock on doors and scream for help. After the boy falls down a flight of stairs, Christian hears him calling for help. Disturbed, Christian desperately searches the trash outside the house for a note which contains the boy's phone number. After finding it and unsuccessfully trying to call the boy, Christian records an apologetic video message.
In the midst of these troubles, Christian has to manage the promotion of a new exhibition centered on an art piece called The Square by Lola Arias,[note 1] which is described in the artist's statement: "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations."
The advertising agency commissioned by the museum to promote The Square states that they need to harness social media attention with something other than the uncontroversial and bland artist's statement. Advertising agency representatives consider a depiction of violence contradicting The Square's message, developing a promotional clip showing an impoverished white blond girl entering The Square and being killed in an explosion. The video is published on the museum's website and YouTube channel after a distracted Christian gives his approval without viewing it. The clip goes viral, quickly reaching 300,000 YouTube views, but receives an extremely hostile response from the media, religious leaders and the general public. The museum arranges a press conference, where Christian states he violated protocol and is stepping down as curator in mutual agreement with the board. Several journalists then attack him for stirring up cheap controversy with a tasteless clip, while others attack him for self-censorship because of his resignation.
Feeling guilty about wronging the boy, Christian drives to the apartment block several days later and tries to find him and his family. Christian talks to a neighbor who states that he knew the boy but that his family has moved away.
The story for the film was conceived when director Ruben Östlund and producer Kalle Boman entered an installation into the Vandalorum Museum in Värnamo in 2014. In their artists' statement, they wrote "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations." While working on the screenplay, Östlund visited numerous art galleries.
In one scene, a man with Tourette's syndrome yells at a public event. Östlund said this was inspired by a true incident at a Swedish theatre, and was depicted without fear of insensitivity, since he said all people are satirized in his work. The beginning of the film was also inspired by a true incident, when in Gothenburg Östlund saw a woman run to a man, saying someone was going to kill her. Another man arrived and yelled. It turned out to be a ploy, in which Östlund's cellphone was stolen.
Much of the art depicted was crafted for the film, with installations influenced by Robert Smithson, an authentic Garry Winogrand image, and another work by Östlund and Kalle Boman. Originally with the performance artist who entertains the affluent patrons, Östlund was considering modelling the character after GG Allin, but deciding that that would be too "extreme", he fell back on his interest in animal imitations. In crafting the scene, his concept was: "this internationally recognized artist is pretending to be a wild beast. What happens when he enters a room full of people in tuxedos?" The scene, and character Oleg Rogozjin, was inspired by a real incident with the artist Oleg Kulik, who performs as a dog and had attacked people at a notorious event in Stockholm. Other artists parodied or referenced in the film include Julian Schnabel and Carl Hammoud.
The budget was $5.5 million. Financial support was provided by the Swedish Film Institute, which awarded the project 11 million SEK, and the Danish Film Institute, which awarded 1 million DKK.
|Terry Notary||...||Oleg Rogozjin|
Danish actor Claes Bang learned of the project through Tanja Grunwald, who was from Denmark and casting The Square. Bang attended three auditions, involving much improvisation. As preparation for the role of Christian, Bang made an in-depth interview with Daniel Birnbaum, the director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm. Bang kept contact with Birnbaum and sent him short videos of himself in the role of an art curator which Birnbaum provided feedback to. Birnbaum's fashion sense was also studied.
After assembling much of his cast in auditions around the Nordic countries, Östlund, mindful of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment's desire for him to make an English-language film, contacted BAFTA in London. This led to Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West joining the cast. Moss practised improvisation for two hours in order to secure her part. Östlund said it was challenging for Moss and West to adapt to Swedish direction, but they eventually adjusted.
Terry Notary, a U.S. actor who plays Oleg, a character who acts like an ape, was cast based on his experience with Planet of the Apes. Östlund discovered Notary after running a Google search for "actor imitating monkey" and viewing one of Notary's performances. For Notary's scene, 300 extras were also employed.
Östlund preferred to focus each day on a single scene, taking as many as 50 takes, though the most complex sequences required four days. In Berlin, one day was spent with a Bonobo, with the cast given rules on how to behave with the animal to prevent triggering a violent reaction.
The film was added to 2017 Cannes Film Festival's schedule near the end of April, a late addition. This marked its international debut. It later went to the Sydney Film Festival in June, followed by the New Zealand International Film Festival in July. With the number of films at the Toronto International Film Festival being reduced from 2016, The Square was nevertheless selected for the 2017 festival in September. The U.S. debut took place at the Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas in September 2017.
The larger theatrical release in Sweden by TriArt Film was scheduled for 25 August 2017. Before the film screened at Cannes, distribution rights were sold for releases in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and other European countries. Magnolia Pictures became the U.S. distributor, having previously worked with Östlund in distributing his Force Majeure (2014). A trailer was publicized in July. In the U.K., it was set to premiere at Somerset House, London on 16 August, but Curzon Artificial Eye decided to delay the wider British release planned for 25 August, for Östlund to edit the final cut.
For the general release of the film, Östlund cut 2 minutes and 43 seconds from the final quarter of the film (as presented at Cannes) to sharpen the last 30 minutes saying, "I sped it up a little."
At Cannes, critical reception was largely positive, though it was not expected to win the Palme d'Or. Variety's Owen Gleiberman called the film "a suavely merciless take-down of the decadence of the contemporary art world," remarking the museum depicted is motivated by greed, and the film is "more outrageous but less effective than Force Majeure." Peter Bradshaw gave it four stars in The Guardian, judging it a "sprawling and daringly surreal satire". In The Hollywood Reporter, Todd McCarthy called it "madly ambitious and frequently disquieting", suggesting it might try to include too much, but had an impact. Robbie Collin gave it four stars in The Daily Telegraph, finding the first hour cleverly satirical, and a later scene horrific. Conversely, IndieWire critic Eric Kohn was disappointed by its over-indulgence and lack of structure, calling it "a Pollock canvas of weird ideas tossed at the audience in search of a singular narrative, some of which stick better than others." Writing for Sight & Sound, Giovanni Marchini Camia argued that the film was overlong but that the dinner scene was "a veritable tour de force", which he suggested could have made a great short film.
Following Cannes, A.O. Scott found a familiar theme of "The bad conscience of the cultural elite", concluding The Square is "ostentatiously smart, maybe too much so for its own good, but ultimately complacent, craven and clueless". Peter Travers gave it three stars, finding enjoyment and some influence from the Marx Brothers, and satire effective so that "it always hurts when you laugh". The New Yorker's Anthony Lane highlighted Notary as the reason to watch the film. In The Village Voice, Bilge Ebiri commented the film was open to many different interpretations as to its point, and that it reflected contemporary society better than any other 2017 film. The Globe and Mail critic Barry Hertz wrote The Square is "a sharp art-world satire" before becoming "something egregiously bonkers". Paul Ennis wrote in NOW that it was "compulsively watchable". Vice.com reviewer Rod Bastanmehr hailed it as a timely satire taking aim at contemporary art patrons.
As of 19 March 2018[update], The Square has an approval rating of 84% on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 178 reviews, and an average rating of 7.5/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "The Square finds writer-director Ruben Östlund as ambitious as ever — and delivering an unforgettably unusual work whose challenging themes pay thought-provoking dividends." On Metacritic, the film has a score of 72 out of 100, based on 31 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
Östlund won the Palme d'Or for The Square, marking the first time a predominantly Swedish production received the honour since The Best Intentions (1992), and the first time a Swedish director won since Alf Sjöberg for Miss Julie (1951). Jury president Pedro Almodóvar cited it for depicting "the dictatorship of being politically correct". Juror Agnes Jaoui also commended it for its intelligence and wit. Set decorator Josefin Åsberg also received the Vulcan Award of the Technical Artist at Cannes. In August, it was selected as the Swedish entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards; the Academy shortlisted it for a nomination in December. The Square also received the most nominations at the 30th European Film Awards.
- List of submissions to the 90th Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film
- List of Swedish submissions for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film
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