2018 Film Essays

An Indictment of the Responsible Adult: Ruben Östlund’s ‘The Square’


Much has already been made regarding how The Square, Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s latest film, offers an eviscerating look at the modern shibboleths of privilege, tolerance and social equality. The comedic drama revolves around the fictitious X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, the kind of neoliberal cosmopolis that is the celebrated pinnacle of Western civilization; a satirist’s target-rich environment, one might say, of the complacent and the self-satisfied.

Overlooked in many reviews, perhaps because it’s less on the head than other jabs, is the film’s central idea: a chilling indictment of adulthood, specifically how the moral failings of those who should know better — those charged with shepherding young people in their formative years — only guarantees that subsequent generations will repeat the same behavior. In other words, Östlund posits us as a doomed species.

X-Royal artistic director Christian (Claes Bang) seemingly embodies everything valued in the contemporary man: tolerant, well-spoken, patient, not to mention fashionably groomed and environmentally conscious — the guy drives a Tesla for goodness sake. Yet, when his wallet and phone are stolen, Christian’s baser, revenge-driven brain takes control. With the help a colleague, he concocts a juvenile plan to retrieve the lost items; a scheme that involves intimidating the inhabitants of an apartment building where he believes the thieves live.

In the meantime, the museum opens an exhibit titled “The Square.” It’s a conceptual piece, a lighted space on the gallery floor which the artist calls ” a sanctuary of trust and caring.” He also says, “Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s the kind of sentiment that Christian would proudly declare he aspires to live up to every day.

An unintended consequence of Christian’s ploy is that a young boy (Elijandro Edouard in an unnamed role) living in the targeted building is eventually accused of being the thief when clearly he is not. He tracks down Christian and angrily demands an apology.

Even though Christian knows he’s in the wrong, he bluntly turns the boy away for various personal and superficial reasons. It’s not that Christian doesn’t believe his own convictions. His is a world of intellectual nuance, calculated maneuvering and group-think that has left him temperamentally unprepared for the rigors of right behavior.

This is shown during several interactions where Christian is the “senior,” and circumstances demand he take responsibility for his behavior. A mature, adjusted adult would admit mistakes and move on. Christian instead employs a puerile evasiveness in these encounters. That he mistreats the very people he would declare society habitually disparages — women (Elizabeth Moss as Anne) and minorities (Christopher Laesso as coworker Michael) — makes him all the more hypocritical.

Christian rarely passes the movie’s defining central crisis: can you uphold your beliefs when they inconvenience you? And Östlund pushes it even further. This isn’t simple hypocrisy. It’s a reversal of expected roles. Children in The Square are equated with a moral courage that has been stripped from the film’s adults.

It’s telling that the only characters who ever occupy “The Square” are children. Christian’s two daughters (Lise Engstrom and Lilianne Mardon) step into it while he lectures them on its meaning. A successful but grotesquely inappropriate ad campaign shows a beggar child standing dead center. Christian’s boy-nemesis occupies a personal square, willing to fight wherever he stands for justice and dignity with an energy seldom mustered by the grownups.

The final arc of The Square reinforces the point Östlund seems intent on making about the failure of parents to mentor the people in their charge. Surveying the minor accident his life has become and suddenly gripped with an uncharacteristic conviction, Christian decides to apologize in person to the boy and his family.

It’s spur of the moment; accompanying Christian are his daughters, belted into the back seat of his Tesla. But he soon learns that the boy and his family have recently moved out of the apartment building. His apology will never reach them.

This is disappointing for Christian and also for the audience. But Östlund would have never allowed so pat a resolution. He wants viewers to consider what damage Christian has wrought through reluctance to do the right thing. One can imagine the aggrieved boy now carries an understanding that proper treatment of other people, rather than the absolute it’s held up to be, is flexible, especially in the face of more momentary and expedient needs.

The presence of Christian’s daughters in this moment caps Östlund’s point. They are growing up in a world full of such irresolute behavior, of adults arbitrarily ignoring their responsibilities towards fellow human beings, and under the care of one such adult. Östlund ends The Square with the two girls strapped into the backseat of Christian’s car, their father driving them home, or to wherever.

Stefen Styrsky (@Stefen_Styrsky) writes short stories and film reviews. His work has appeared in Amazon’s Day One, the Tahoma Literary Review, Number Eleven Magazine, Litbreak and The Offing, among other places. He has an MA in Fiction Writing from the Johns Hopkins University and lives in Washington, DC. His website is stefenstyrsky.com.