Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or winning satire of the art world and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s peek into a Loveless Russia address issues of social responsibility in our generic age of self-absorption
By Katherine Monk
TORONTO — One man was lying face down on a street grate to keep warm. He wore no shoes. His feet were blistered and gangrenous black. He was eating what appeared to be a discarded salad with his hands, dirty, swollen, cracked. I walked by him, and about a dozen other bodies wrapped in soiled sleeping bags, on my way to festival headquarters on King Street where the freshly laid red carpet curls out its tongue, anticipating the glitterati.
As a Vancouverite, walking past homeless people is routine. Turning a deaf ear to the person with the glazed eyes and a feeble hand stretched into the moving stream of sidewalk treading humanity is such a regular exercise, it doesn’t even register. It’s considered part of the urban experience.
Yet, on day one of the Toronto International Film Festival, something shifted inside me. And for that, I thank Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’Or winning sophomore feature, The Square.
Set against the backdrop of Sweden’s artsy elite, The Square takes us on a modern social odyssey through the eyes of Christian (Claes Bang), curator of the X-Royal Museum — an avant-garde gallery housed in the former palace. The first piece we see is an installation called ‘Piles of Garbage’ — a tidy collection of gravel arranged in symmetrical pyramids beneath a white neon sign that reads “YOU HAVE NOTHING.”
The ‘artwork’ becomes a running joke. And the running ‘joke’ is the theme, because this isn’t just a searing satire of the art world, it’s a straight razor across the collective eyeball of modern society.
Christian is all about optics. As curator, he is the public face of the museum, and he looks exactly right: Tall, dark and undeniably handsome, Christian is the one who stands at the podium at fundraisers and schmoozes the wealthy seeking large endowments. He’s the kind of guy who practices his casual remarks in the mirror, carefully removing his red-frame designer glasses for added sincerity.
In the opening scene — shortly after we watch an old monument commemorating the Royal Family inelegantly taken off its pedestal — we watch him being interviewed by an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss). She asks him what the biggest problem facing modern art is today, and he answers ‘money.’ He says he needs to fundraise to ensure the art is accessible to the masses instead of squirrelled away in private collections. Then she asks him to explain something she read on the website — a paragraph of pretentious art jargon that typically decorates gallery walls in inch-high helvetica bold.
He fumbles. Then says something about art and context: “If I took your bag, and put it here in the museum, would it be be considered art?” She nods politely at the explanation, and we move on to watch Christian cross a central square in Stockholm as a woman with a clipboard tries to stop passers-by with a mechanically delivered line: “Care to save a human life?”
No one stops, but moments later, we hear a woman’s voice cry for help. She runs into Christian and another man, screaming “he’s going to kill me!” They react, tell her it’s okay, only to be greeted seconds later by the face of a muscle-bound boyfriend. They protect her. The man goes away, and Christian feels like a hero, pumped up and grinning ear-to-ear. It’s only when he gets back to his office that he realizes his wallet, phone and cufflinks have been lifted.
From here on in, things only get worse for Christian as he struggles with his own prejudices born from affluence, as well as his bourgeois desire to do the “right” thing. After all, he’s trying to bring people together through art. That’s what he tells himself, and anyone else who cares to listen. It’s the reason why he persuaded the board to acquire and display “The Square” — a new installation featuring four linear strands of LEDs embedded into the cobblestones outside, as well as a plaque that reads: “The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
It’s an easy message, but a hard sell — much like the film itself. To promote the installation, the museum’s PR firm, embodied by two 20-something males who could double as Hugo Boss models, attempt a stunt campaign. It goes viral, but the optics are all wrong.
Meanwhile, Christian tries to get his phone back by tracking it to a housing project and threatening the residents inside — with a note — because he’s afraid of any real confrontation. Eventually, the confrontation arrives in the form of a young boy with black hair and a Middle Eastern accent.
The Square addresses just about every modern-day challenge in society, from Europe’s ‘immigration crisis’ to our technological dependence and our collective need for constant distraction.
It’s brilliant and jarring black comedy, but beyond Ostlund’s beautifully crafted frames is a profound question about social responsibility, and whether art and artists can affect the world beyond the ivory tower. Or is it all affectation?
In the midst of one of the largest film festivals in the world, these are uncomfortable thoughts to truly process. Yet, they are everywhere. Ostlund, who previously pushed similar buttons with regard to family responsibility in Turist/Force Majeure, is not alone in his quest to rouse us from our smart-phone-induced deaf, dumb and selfie-ness.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathan) Loveless is a chilling tale of parental neglect, where we watch two self-absorbed adults spend more time looking at their phones than into the eyes of their only son. When he disappears without a trace, it takes a while for them to even notice his absence.
The rest of the running time is spent looking for the boy in an urban wasteland, filled with Socialist relics from the past and 21st century arrivistes.
Film festivals used to show us different worlds, different ways of life. Yet, now it feels like all we see are reflections of the same global reality starting back at us: a world where people are consumed with optics, a place where human beings take pictures of themselves and work out, but make love without actually looking into each other’s eyes.
James Baldwin said the artist’s responsibility is to help humanity by illuminating the darkness within “so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
Today, after sitting in the darkness of a cinema for nine hours and walking back to my rented townhouse up from King Street, it seems that for some, simply finding a place to dwell would make the world more human.
THE EX-PRESS, September 8, 2017