Sunday, October 22, 2017

One Flew Over The Monkey House

The Square

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to profit of another man's misfortune and was handed a VIP ticket to a sold-out showing of the movie The Square, from Swedish writer and director Ruben Östlund, at the Ghent Film Festival. Fresh, not quite living up to the meaning of the word, from work I got to the multiplex, which for the occasion looked like something out of a movie. Cast included. Contending for scruffiest VIP attendee was I, as I shared the catwalk with tall blondes, middle-age five o'clock shades, neat suits, smiles and the smell of Indian summer - which wasn't doing me any favors after a days worth of creative pondering.
Since the ticket was the last minute type of last minute opportunity, I had absolutely no idea what The Square was about. But I rather liked the idea of being surprised. Trying to remedy my naivety was a familiar face from television which I had never seen before. It made a speech that was supposed to lead us into the film. This bothered me. The suggestion bothers me, it puts up a frame that boxes-in one's understanding. I'd rather like to make up my own mind. Nevertheless, the well-spoken entity on the screen told all of us this was a satire on the world of modern art. Being a once-insider of this world, I could feel clouds gathering overhead.

Christian, played by Claes Bang. Curator of the X-Royal museum

Luckily the film didn't start with a comical stint, in which a clumsy museum cleaner makes a mess on the white walls after which it is mistaken by the Japanese attendees for being a poignant statement by a maverick painter. No, it starts out with a cascade of ever louder music, a party, over a black screen that comes to a sudden stop and opens the shot on the lead figure by the name of Christian (Claes Bang). The first scene is of him waking up, presumably the morning after, alone on a sofa. Still wearing his suit. He's late for an interview conducted by Anne (Elisabeth Moss) about the latest exhibition. In the interview he's asked to clarify a highfalutin description of a previous exhibition. You may know the sort of incomprehensible artistic sounding drivel. After some prodding he, with some hesitation, mumbles an explanation "If I place a normal object in a museum, does it become art?" At this moment, I strongly dislike this man who had just confessed that his job was mostly about securing enough funds to buy "important art".
The current exhibition in the story is all about the titular "The Square", which has the function of providing a safe space in which human rights are paramount. This is explained by Christian to his patrons, with great pathos and premeditated built-in moment in which 'spontaneously' goes off script.

The X-Royal museum, for the occasion modern art has taken the throne.

Cut to: a shot of a homeless person.
Cut to: a shot of Christian and people like him, obliviously passing by a street barker asking for donations for a humanitarian cause.
The movie is rather clearly pointing out something. In this very scene, Christian gets robbed of cellphone and wallet as he plays the hero in an orchestrated domestic abuse scene. This kicks off an arc of Christian trying to get his stuff back at any cost. His staff, as well as the the lower class residents of an apartment building, which to him, are all suspect to be the thief he's looking for. All have to bear the brunt of his petty quest. Material wealth in his life takes priority, as does his ego - against which this theft is a great injustice.

At any cost, but to no cost to himself as he scapegoats and guilts his underlings into performing his dirty work. The movie plods along a lovely disjointed pace, we see Christian crack in all the right places for us to peek at the monster inside. From the obsession of his possession, to the disdain to the less fortunate, the utilitarian views he has on his staff, to the childish self-pity whenever his hare-brained schemes fall apart. We start to see the picture of a deeply insecure man who is being lived by the role he desperately clings to. Leeching off the system that has him, in this case, promote a banal art piece that is supposed to encourage altruism. Each time there's a glimmer of redemption and the option to do the right thing, he hesitates and never goes all the way of setting things right. He struts them with a good intention but never takes action. He insists on being irredeemable because a man of his stature doesn't need redemption.

There's a party at night at the museum, sounds like the blind opening of the movie. It's decadent. It has grotesque movements - the dance looks like a fight in its violence. Flabby old women with eyes closed dancing like twenty somethings. Sweat glues clothes that want to come lose of their host bodies. The museum resembles a zoo. It's animalistic.

At this point, the movie was no longer bound to the silver screen, something wonderful had happened.

The chapter ends with Christian and Anne undressing at her place. What follows is the coldest portrayal of two people having sex. They lie to each other that this is a great, meaningful moment but it looks like a cash exchange. A contractual meeting of bodies. There is no affection between these two... but it suits the situation. What else are two rich, well dressed, art minded people to do after a wild party? This is what's supposed to happen. They are being lived by their roles they have chosen for themselves and now, like automatons, are going through the agreed upon motions.
Anna lives in an opulent Baroque apartment with a chimp that draws with crayons. This is a bit of nonsense that many in the audience seemed to find funny. I wondered why I heard laughter. "How absurd, it's a monkey!". At this point, the movie was no longer bound to the silver screen, something wonderful had happened.
Here we must remember that the audience was told upfront that this movie was a parody. This means you laugh at anything you think is intended to be funny. They mustn't have noticed the pattern that was pervading the film in subtle ways. The civilized world is held into stark contrast with the natural. Good manners with instinct. Ego with fear. Bravery with cowardice. A chimp doing art, part of the pattern, foreshadows something we don't yet know.

In prior shots from the museum, we have seen two shots of a video installation with a picture in close up of a muscular young artist behaving like a gorilla. The projection of the video is way in the background, but larger than life and fills the frame. In all cases, the picture of this artist is glaring and breathing at Christian. This is the thread of a second plot arc that runs in parallel to Christian's. The well-behaved, controlled and library-like quiet of the museum also shows its cracks. Behind them is this contained ape-man...
A first blow lands in a moment where the high society donors from the off-the-script-speech get shouted into paralysis by the gourmet chef of the museum as they walk away indifferent from his announcement of the fancy dinner that's being served for them. They react like frightened children at the disturbance of the chef's shout. No social norm has been agreed to such alarm and they freeze, unable to respond to this outside signal.
Then there's a live interview going on before a similar crowd. A polite affair in which an artist, who dresses in blue pajamas with an overcoat, speaks inanely about his process of bringing mundane objects into the exhibition sphere. The elderly, yet stylish, woman doing the interview politely nods at the beat of every full stop of the artist's sentences. Suddenly an audience member blurts out a string of profanities. A man with Tourettes syndrome disturbs social mores and everyone gets very uncomfortable. They do their best to try and ignore the cascade of sputtered insults. Here again, civil society is upset by a shock wave of human nature.
A museum cleaner accidentally vacuums an piece of artwork of piled pebbles. This hit close to home. Something quite similar happened in Ghent when a city cleaner scrubbed the colour mixing strokes from a painting in a public space. The outraged artist fumed at the destruction of his work - a part of which were the sketch lines.

A scene that should make cinematic history.

This story culminates with a scene that should make cinematic history. The rich donors of high, modern art loving society are about to have a gala dinner in an artistic setting. This takes place in a dining room blooming with gold as in Versailles. The middle-age and elderly men brought their young and middle-age wives to this gilt soirée. It's a scene with tall blondes, five o'clock shades, wearing neat suits and smiles. The art is announced over the audio system, informing the crowd of what is to come. A confrontation is coming. The advice is to not falter in the face of adversity. In walks the gorilla artist from the museum for a live performance. He walks on all fours, bare chested, a hunk of pressed and bundled muscle, shouting, braying... The art is loose. Challenging the suits, daring them to engage. "How absurd, a silly monkey-man" and they laugh the unease away. An interesting echo.

But the art persists, threatening with its behavior. Truly an ape, an animal with which there is no pleading. After matters get a little more violent and some would-be heroes are run off. The mood in this kitschy setting turns grim, the entire room freezes. The art has a mind of its own and no matter of stature, riches, power and importance can stop its rampage. It only ends when the patrons realize that they too, under the thin veneer of their suits, are animals.

Terry Notary portrays the ape-man "Oleg" in the film. The Russian artist Oleg Kulik was invited to the international group exhibition "Interpol" at Färgfabriken, Stockholm, Sweden. At the opening, the vernissage, Kulik performed like a dog. He glittered, jumped up, rolled and even bit the VIP crowd in their legs. Kulik said he acted as a representative of the browbeaten Russian people, who now attacked and bet back. The crowd became so scared and enraged that they called for the police. In "The square" there is a similar, charged and offensive scene, but here the performance artist acts like a monkey.
from IMDB

Halfway through the film we see that Christian has two small daughters from a divorced marriage. A fact that the plot, like the man himself, kept hidden. They are introduced after the children had to walk home from school because daddy didn't come pick them up. Within minutes of their reunion the monster is shouting down the youngest for banging with the doors out of frustration. At this point, to me, the monster had shed its human skin. I also didn't hear any more uncomfortable laughs from the movie audience either. I had rather hoped the penny had dropped.

The film seems to make a point of showing us what Christian sees and wants to see. More poignantly, what he doesn't want to see. In the fallout of his quest to get back his toys, he has offended an immigrant boy who insists he apologize for calling him a thief (and impugning the boy's standing with his parents). In a verbal kerfuffle the boys ends up falling down a flight of stairs in Christian's luxury apartment complex and is left there, crying out for help. Christian, considering the matter of the apology closed chooses to ignore the pleas and goes back to business as usual. The repeated pleas scoring the scene of Christian sifting through some mail. Till they come to a sudden stop. At this time Christian has a change of heart and digs out the telephone number of the boy, gets voicemail and leaves a message with a heartfelt apology. Yet the message may never arrive. We cannot know, just as Christian cannot.

Meanwhile, in his life as curator, there has also been an upset. A marketing video has gone scandalously viral. While this is mission accomplished for getting the The Square project much needed attention, the violence and imagery of the clip doesn't suit the brushed-up image of the museum. Blame falls to the curator. Only the movie audience knows this issue stems from his quest for his effects. But rather than accept his responsibility and negligence, Christian blames the incident on an "unauthorized release". The opportunity to defend freedom of speech, which is a big issue in Sweden at the moment, is passed by and he resigns his post, to great disapproval of the press. Therefore shifting the blame taking the coward's way out.
The movie finally ends, when a now unemployed Christian seeks out the boy from the staircase incident to apologize. He goes back to the original building where he made his threat and asks around, hat in hand. He's told that the boy hasn't been seen in weeks and is presumed to have moved away suddenly and unannounced. This is ominous news and Christian knows it, but he chooses to believe the hypothetical story and leaves in the comfort that there's nothing he can still do. Opting for the comforting lie. The audience too, is left to think about this as the film ends without a clear resolution.

Most of the entertainment in this movie comes from elements upsetting this staged play of politeness. It's a commentary, not the parody it is seemingly perceived as.

Frankly, I don't think any amount of prior information would have prepared me for The Square. It really was a good thing that I went in as blind as I did. It's an odd, uncomfortable film. Its characters are scrubbed of humanity till all that's left is their functional meaning. They are like civil servants that represent the state and not themselves - but seen in a keeping up appearances sort of way. His role as curator is where Christian is powerful and effective. Yet when it comes to Christian without the mantle... well, it's not pretty. That's why so much of the curator part pervades his personal life. He's not the only one, almost all the adults in this story are playing a culturally determined character. Most of the entertainment in this movie comes from elements upsetting this staged play of politeness. The art in the film is meant to put a magnifying glass on real world issues. But next to the artistic happenings, every character at play here puts much more stock into illusions and escapism. The art here is the only real world element that is allowed to penetrate the protective upper class bubble. Yet even that is by proximation, a sterile mirror image. As a consequence, the only action is taken is symbolic - which in times of social media slacktivism makes the picture hit another mark. What happens if the real world event unexpectedly knocks at your door? It's a commentary, not the parody it is seemingly perceived as. I did not laugh once during the entire showing, and was surprised some people did. At a couple of times, I wanted to sink through my seat or hide in the palms of my hands but in the end it's this that makes this film rather interesting. It's confronting because there's a bit of Christian in all of us. That is to say, none is without ego or egotistic tendencies. I only hope that it's not to this degree. You'll have plenty of time to think about the happenings in here too. You'll be positively able to stew in it since many of the scenes drag on very long. If you are expecting to be entertained you may be disappointed and the run time adds to that frustration. Some of the movie even feels a little clumsy. In my opinion, The Square has much more value when you look at it as a product of its time. Seen in this light, it itself straddles the line of becoming art.


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