When we ask for confession in church, we often ask for God to forgive us for both the things we have done and the things we’ve neglected to do. We also ask for forgiveness in our failing to care for others. Human beings are inherently sinful, and inherently selfish — our failing to engage with the messy needs of others (or to outright avoid them) isn’t exclusive to any income, class level, religious, or political belief. It just is.
Director Ruben Östlund’s sharply observed satire The Square has many themes — the fragility of the male ego, the pompousness of the art world, and the push and pull between PC self-censorship and freedom of expression among them. But chiefly, the film points to the everyday selfishness of humanity, and the hypocrisy of it in those who claim progressive values. Östlund’s skewering of passive modern culture and our instinct for self-preservation is both relentless and instantly relatable.
The Square follows the ironically named Christian (Claes Bang), a director at a modern art museum that’s just acquired the titular installation. The Square is a simple cable of lights set into the pavement. The idea is that if someone stands inside of it and asks for help, people nearby are required to assist.
But help is something Christian, and everyone around him, has trouble giving to those who really need it. The Square is full of characters asking for help from unwilling people, including homeless people, charity workers, and women being attacked. Even Christian, an attractive upper-class white guy, can’t get help when his wallet and phone are stolen on the street.
When he tracks his stolen phone to a housing project, Christian and his assistant righteously drive to the place to demand them back, but once they arrive, they’re scared by the possibility of having to actually confront people. Later when Christian encounters a boy he’s falsely accused of the theft, he aggressively shoos the kid away rather than simply apologizing. Humanizing others is a struggle, too. Christian hooks up with an American reporter, Anne (Elizabeth Moss), but can’t remember her name later.
What makes The Square such effective satire is that although these actions are bad, the people portrayed aren’t evil. Christian isn’t proud of the bad choices he makes, and many of them are ones we can identify with. He’s not the only target, either. In another scene, when an audience member is attacked by an aggressive performance artist (Terry Notary) as part of a piece, the rest of the audience is too busy hoping he’ll leave them alone to intervene.
The Square is a smart, bitingly funny reminder of the lengths we go to insulate ourselves from unpleasantness, at the cost of helping others. Art installations about compassion are easy, but actually being compassionate is much tougher. The best we can do is try to defy our selfish nature, know that we will often fail, and confess our failing when it happens.