Director Ruben Östlund’s latest film, ‘The Square’ is a timely social satire which examines the effect of modern technology on social interactions.
Ruben Östlund’s ‘The Square’ is a timely and poignant social satire, dense with relevant ideas to ponder. Among other things, it questions how far new technologies have transformed the public square into a stage on which we perform social interactions as ‘types’ – adopting personae that have ready-made meanings and then using these masks to manipulate our audience.
The film’s protagonist is designer-suited and bespectacled Christian (a Western European success story) who curates a modern art gallery in Stockholm. Östlund creates an interrelated series of tableaux that offer insight into the complex processes by which Europe has become implicated in its self-destruction.
From the opening act, Western viewers are confronted with a relatable metaphor to contemplate, when Christian emerges from the metro station while on his way to work. As he strides across a bustling public square, he (and other passers-by) are confronted by a solicitous stranger asking each person if he/she “would like to save one human life”. Like the others, Christian ignores her and continues on his way.
This forms the backdrop for what occurs next — a bizarre incident that upsets Christian’s equilibrium and sets him on a troubled quest to set things to right. The strange event introduces a trio of archetypes – the ‘victim’, the ‘perpetrator’ and the ‘saviour.’ All three of these archetypes connive in a carefully orchestrated ‘pseudo-event’ that culminates with Christian’s realisation that he has been robbed of his wallet, his phone and a pair of heirloom cufflinks bequeathed by his grandfather.
During the clever hoax, Christian is a bystander who cheers on the ‘saviour’ and appears to believe (at first) that the saviour’s virtue has somehow rubbed off on him. Instead, the apparent good Samaritan was a performance criminal partaking in an elaborate ruse to exploit Christian’s credulity and is humanitarian instincts, turning him into the real victim and depriving him of his belongings.
The public square in which Christian is first set up by the thieves is a metaphor for virtual reality, and Christian’s fandom for the ‘do-gooder’ can be likened to the liberal social justice keyboard warrior. He is a spectator defending the apparent ‘victim’, cheering on (‘Liking’) what the good ‘saviour’ does, and congratulating the latter with a few words of encouragement.
The online justice warrior’s emotions are yanked this way and that, her power is to watch and to respond positively to the ‘right’ actor or negatively to the apparent bully. However, Christian not only ignores those soliciting help in the real world, as we saw from the previous scene, but he is entirely misled into supporting the very people who happily exploit his best instincts to rob him of his wallet (his economy), his phone (his speech/discourse) and his heirloom cufflinks (his history). All of this is suggestive of how easily Western European left-wing politics can fall into an ideological trap that threatens to eviscerate European values under the pretext of necessary virtues, such as over-protection of apparent victims and scapegoats (e.g. ‘immigrants’ simpliciter), some of whom may be wolves in sheep’s clothing (Islamist imperialists, misogynists, and/or homophobes).
But Östlund’s film equally turns its incisive satirical lens on Western culpability. The robbery incident provides a conceptual blueprint for the film, which explores how far our actions as moral agents in both the virtual and real worlds of social relationships are also ‘acts’ – performances on varied human stages in which we each play many roles, whether in front of the camera, behind a screen, on the wall of a social media site, standing at a podium or in the privacy of our bedrooms. Given the new digitally mediated dimensions of our ‘public square’, in which we both produce and consume political content, how far can we trust the personalities and events represented there?
The ‘performance crime’ provides a poignant commentary on how the culture of victimhood works within the matrix of online identity politics. What matters is not how anyone behaves but how one’s type is perceived within a set of public roles. To further complicate matters, the actions one takes in the real world can today be enacted for the very purpose of producing online content – such that life events have as their end goal some form of broadcast. We are, in a sense, always prepared to be on a public stage. There is no longer any clear line between the private person and his or her public persona.
Finding Christian’s stolen phone’s location with the aid of a tracer App, his Arab employee Michael at the art gallery persuades Christian to leaflet the entire building with a threatening letter, since his quarry lives somewhere within its walls. The only downside is that there will be ‘collateral damage’ since many innocent inhabitants of the criminal’s building (effectively his neighbours) will be unjustly accused and threatened. This raises the very real question of whether the prospect of capturing one or two real criminals justifies subjecting all of these innocent people to harassment. The obvious metaphor is the legitimate fear that immigrants and Muslims will be stigmatised in the justified attempt to capture Islamist jihadists. The former shouldn’t be made to suffer just because the latter ‘play the victim’ and use grievance narratives to guilt-trip Westerners with the aim of robbing them of their cultural heritage and values (here symbolised by Christian’s possessions). In adding this Islamist ‘victim-posturing’ to the already widely lamented problem of Muslim victimisation by Western counter-terrorism policies, Östlund’s film is far more realistic in its presentation of the issues.
To illustrate the moral complexities of the situation, Östlund presents the ploy [of leafleting the building with threats]as the Arab’s idea, to which Christian capitulates on the agreement that he will not be the one who has to do the deed. The two men get into Christian’s car with ‘Genesis’ by Justice blaring from the car stereo, but when they arrive at the apartment block, Michael backs out from fear of getting caught and insists that Christian will have to do it himself. Christian (here with reference to the United States and its idealised reputation on the world stage) reminds Michael, “You know, I am kind of a public figure.” When his colleague still doesn’t budge, Christian comes up with the idea of borrowing the Arab’s coat as a ‘disguise’ in case he is seen — another reference to Western behind-the-scenes involvement in political coups and terror plots that appear to stem directly from the Arab world.
Eventually, however, the plan works and Christian recovers his stolen property, but he also learns that an innocent boy has been confined indoors by his family, who saw the letter and believe him to be the thief.
The boy arrives at the designated convenience store where the guilty party has been instructed to return Christian’s belongings (or else!) and confronts Michael who is there to ‘collect’ the stolen property on Christian’s behalf, shouting at him and insisting that he is ‘Christian’. This provides yet another metaphor for the confusion in the Arab world (the boy is also apparently an ethnic minority) when the West uses front groups to do its dirty work – it becomes impossible to know which organisation is acting as an agent of the West.
The whole plan and its unintended consequences raise the question of how far, if at all, innocent individuals can be instrumentalised in the pursuit of a legitimate target. While the soundtrack leaves no doubt that while ‘Justice’ is exactly what Christian and his work colleague are after, getting it leads to injustices that are equal to, and potentially even greater than, the justice that can be achieved by their chosen means.
While receiving a threatening letter aimed at someone else may not seem terribly harmful, the damage – both to its victims and to Christian’s moral integrity — increases exponentially over the course of the film. The innocent Arab boy, having finally located Christian, confronts him and demands that he vindicate him to his father, who still thinks he’s guilty of the theft. In trying to disentangle himself from the boy’s pushy demands, Christian accidentally shoves the boy, who stumbles backwards and falls down a staircase. The audience is left not knowing the consequences, just as in the real world we never learn the full extent of the harm done by Western political machinations in foreign lands or Muslim communities within our own. It could be the mild inconvenience of receiving an offensive accusation that does not apply but can be dismissed without much real harm done, or it can be an unintended (but serious) physical injury. We never find out.
The leafleting plot also does serious damage to Christian. His daughters overhear the whole thing with the innocent boy and perceive that their father has done something unjust, even though they do not know the full details. We can see from their faces that Christian has irrevocably lost their unconditional love and respect. This speaks volumes about the current state of the West and the younger generation’s disillusionment and loss of trust in Europe’s (or America’s) moral superiority.
A Question of Trust
The question of trust is central to the film’s narrative, and the theme is explored in a variety of ways. After his Arab colleague bails on him at the apartment block, Christian, now wearing the Arab’s coat, pauses to ask him, “Can I trust you?” In the act of vocalising this question while he is most dependent on the Arab, who will be the ‘getaway driver’, Christian already shows a degree of trust.
Later at a shopping mall, Christian entrusts all of his shopping bags to a beggar, despite the fact that earlier he told the same guy that he “didn’t have any cash”. This illustrates the fragility of Christian’s gamble and the contradiction of depending upon the very people whose needs you have ignored. It also shows that sometimes even those we should least trust to protect us or our belongings, insofar as we are not deserving of their loyalty, will nevertheless prove themselves worthy of it.
The same issue surfaces again when Christian beds an American journalist who had earlier asked him some probing questions about the meaning of his artsy psychobabble, effectively calling him out for his bullshit. They both know that Christian is a phoney but there is mutual attraction and after sex, Christian demands that she give him his sperm-filled condom (lest she should use it to get pregnant without his consent). While Anne claims that she would not do such a thing, Christian insists on taking the condom back, and there is a hilarious tug-of-war, showing that Christian would sooner fuck someone than trust them. In another sequence, Christian’s daughters are at an art gallery where an exhibition forces visitors to choose one of two doors, respectively marked “I trust people” and “I mistrust people”.
The contemporary art gallery where Christian curates is hosting a new exhibition of an artwork that is also themed on trust. ‘The Square’ artwork invites us to imagine a small delineated public space in which all persons share equal rights and equal responsibilities. It is a metaphor for the modern state and the social contract on which it is based.
The gallery’s public relations team decide to launch the exhibition with an extreme publicity stunt that backfires and soon goes viral on the internet. The ‘event’ is a staged ‘act’ of violence against an innocent victim: this time a small blonde girl. The idea is to give maximum offence to the target audience of rich white Europeans – the same ones who earlier were shown casually walking past a woman who entreats, “would you like to save one human life?”.
This touches on the question of “exhibit-ability” – a question that Christian had posed to Anne earlier when he asked whether placing her handbag on the floor of the gallery would transform it into “art”. It highlights the disjunction between the huge public scandal caused by televised or staged victimhood versus the relative disinterest in real victims, showing that the public’s emotions are more easily mobilized by fake representations of ‘evil’ than by immoral realities in the actual world.
The publicity stunt sparks a furore over freedom of speech (what can be represented) while ignoring what can be done to real human beings. Somewhere in the world, a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable disease.
The point is driven home at the banquet scene, in which the chattering classes – patrons of the arts – are suited and seated in a grand ballroom, chandeliers twinkling overhead. The lights dim and the master of ceremonies announces over a microphone that guests will now be treated to something special – a surprise. As the man-ape begins to circle the crowd, there is palpable discomfort. Art has begun to blur into real life and no longer can the patrons remain pure spectators. They are transformed into the possible victims of the stuff that they usually only watch happening to others from a safe distance.
‘The Square’ is a tale about how easily we forget that spectatorship implicates us in forms of violence. Looking, whether at a television, an art gallery or a computer screen, is not an entirely passive form of inaction but rather a particular type of action. Being an onlooker is an act, a choice and a moral position. By looking at something or someone in a particular light, we transform both the world and ourselves. By not looking we do too.
The man-ape threatens to rape one of the female dinner guests, causing tuxedoed men to intervene. A scuffle breaks out. By assuming that art is mere entertainment, another ‘thing’ for their consumption, the patrons have left themselves vulnerable and unprepared for the actual violence it can wreak … art is not without consequence.
This brings us to another question posed by the film: how far can free expression go before it becomes dangerous or intolerable? Christian’s leaflet illustrates that a group can be harmed by words intended only for some members of the group and that the undeserving are harmed by words intended only for the deserving. Where better to set this film than in Sweden, Denmark’s antagonistic sibling vis-à-vis the Danish cartoon controversy?
On the other hand, how far should the public square be open to offensive rhetoric and disruptions? Another scene sees a public interview with the artist (Dominic West) constantly disrupted by a man with Tourette syndrome, whose obscenities seem pointed at the artists’ comments. However, the audience tolerates this with patient, good humour because they assume that the man cannot help himself. But since he is disrupting everyone else’s enjoyment of the interview and effectively shutting it down, how far should the public (or the venue) tolerate his interruptions? We could ask the same question of a parent with a crying baby. Should the man excuse himself out of courtesy, or should the entire audience have to put up with the disruption, simply because the man can’t help it? Surely he can decide whether to stay (and disrupt someone else’s speech) or to excuse himself politely. This turns the question in the other direction, making us ponder whether the offended have a right to shut down speech that they could just as easily choose not to listen to.
Interestingly, Christian does acts of charity that are not public and he seems to make regular donations to a Muslim girl who begs at his local coffee shop. While Christian is represented as an ‘actor’ who carefully prepares his speeches and public ‘performances’, carefully controlling his image, he is also a decent man in some of his private deeds.
Ultimately The Square leads us to ponder the extent to which we ape our own humanity and how far our performances of humanity in the public square can be trusted.