The Square

One of the most interesting recent movies I’ve seen in a long while, The Square, from Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund, takes a look at trust and suspicion and how they play out in a man who thinks he’s progressive. 

Christian (Claes Bang) is a curator for a major art museum in Sweden. He’s fashionable, popular, powerful, admired … and full of himself. Not in a snobbish way, he’s simply so self-centered he’s convinced that everyone should be as liberal as he is. In short, Christian is an everyman, albeit just a little more … with a little more money, more power, and more status.

Christian believes in educating, and confronting people with the art in the museum, so he’s truly excited to bring in a new exhibit entitled The Square. 

“The Square,” he says, “is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” 

So it’s to his surprise when his phone and wallet are stolen during a walk. He spends the rest of the film trying to get it back and then dealing with the unexpected consequences that occur because his actions are misaligned with his ideals. He’s able to trace the phone’s signal to an apartment building, but not to a specific unit. So he leaves a note under every door at the apartment building he’s traced the phone back to. Soon he receives back the phone and his wallet, with all of the money intact. This is the end of it, he thinks. But then he gets a visit from a boy who tells him that his letter has caused his parents to think he’s a thief, and he calls on Christian to make it right, even threatens to make his life hell if he refuses. 

The Square is fascinating because it looks at the issues of trust and suspicion through various angles within one character’s life. It examines how the people surrounding Christian affect him, and how he trusts or doesn’t trust them (even when he truly thinks he does). It’s about how mistrust of people can bring harm to them and the damage that can happen when you trust indiscriminately. 

The film examines how trust operates in different spheres, at work, in romance, between economic/social classes, and with the public-at-large. It soon becomes clear that Christian largely trusts people who he feels are most like him, namely his colleagues and a public relations firm. While he distrusts others who come from other walks of life, like the boy’s neighbors and Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American reporter he becomes romantically involved with.

If we define trust as a willingness to give up power and still feel safe, then we can see Christian’s mistrust as a defense against losing all he has worked to acquire. But it’s this defense, the film seems to argue, that also prevents us from being truly good and helpful to those around us. This defense locks us in just as much as it keeps others out. It prevents us from creating rich relationships and eventually leaves others mistrusting us as we’ve mistrusted them.

Östlund creates a screenplay that’s as complex as it is intriguing with some truly fascinating scenes showing both people’s arrogance as well as their unwillingness to admit their ignorance when they are in an uncomfortable situation. Look for one where a man (Terry Notary) imitates a gorilla in a dining room full of the upper class, well worth the price of the film alone.