FILM/TV | In a year of refugee stories, queer faces, and lots of women and people of color, the jury went for the "safe" choice
When watching the press coverage for "The Square" from this year's Cannes FIlm Festival, you will see a video entitled "I like horrifyingly awkward moments," quoting Director Ruben Östlund.
Awkward doesn't even begin to describe the experience of watching "The Square."
It stars Claes Bang as Christian, the incredibly handsome and posh chief curator of the X-Royal Museum in Stockholm. The film satirizes the day-to-day events of working in the art world. Problems such as a pile of gravel being removed from an exhibit of such and a man with Tourettes disturbing an event with an artist are examples of Christian's daily tasks. The jokes create this sense of awkward humor that begins as endearing, but quickly spirals out of control.
COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
Another thread of this narrative is the question of trusting people and what it truly means to be a good person. This is rooted in both Christian's newest curated exhibit — "The Square" which asks people to enter into a fully trusting environment — as well as an incident where his cell phone and wallet are stolen in a public square, leading to him delivering a number of threatening notes to the building where he discovers the items are located. The commentary about the apartment complex being the kind of place Christian does not feel comfortable in (the people are less affluent and more racially diverse than him and his friends) is frequent, but adds little to viewers' understanding other than to confirm Christian is dislikable.
This self-involved problem ultimately leads to Christian's downfall throughout the film. He approves a horrific PR campaign for the museum while consumed in the drama of locating his items, one that will ultimately terminate his position at the museum. You might think it sad, but alas, the dislike for Christian becomes so prolific for Christian throughout the film that audiences will feel ambivalent. By the conclusion of the film, where he has attempted to apologize to everyone and anyone for his self-indulgent acts, the feelings will definitely be "good riddance" as opposed to pity for the protagonist.
COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
The saving grace throughout this film is Elisabeth Moss, playing Anne, a high-strung, quirky journalist who interviews Christian and later attempts to develop a relationship with him. They participate in one of the most awkward, hilarious sex scenes I've ever seen involving unfulfilled desires and a debate over condom removal, later followed by a tête-à-tête over the difficulty in labeling what the two are (Moss repeatedly asks Bang to remember her name, and when he finally does, her entire tone toward him changes). However, following the last appearance of Moss, the film's execution also starts to dissipate and disappear into madness.
The film takes "awkward moments" to the point of complete insanity and disbelief for the later two-thirds of the narrative. Audiences will stop caring about the social message about how money and capitalism are toxic because they create the sort of world where a bad guy like Christian has been allowed to thrive. They will also not believe that he is attempting to change as he takes his daughters along with him to make his apologies. If he were really trying evolving or understanding the wrongs in his society, Christian would not arrange for a dinner at the museum where a mentally ill man is put on display as an exhibit where he interacts with guests as an ape (and nearly rapes a woman), and we would eventually hear the rest of Moss's story instead of continuing to pretend to care that he feels sorry for himself.
COURTESY OF THE CANNES FILM FESTIVAL
My disappointment in this film having taken home the top prize at the festival is two-fold. Primarily, it was not the best cinematic work I saw across the ten films I screened, and therefore not the best piece of work out of all nineteen films competing for gold. There were works that had better cinematography (such as "Jupiter's Moon," which was entirely snubbed from all prizes), as well as those with a much more compelling narrative structure (i.e. "The Killing of a Sacred Deer," which split the award for Best Screenplay). While "The Square" succeeds at moments, it does not succeed as a whole. This was clear from the conflicting reviews it received in the press circuit.
Secondly, the notion that the choice of this film was "safe" for the jury this year is a discouraging thought. With a panel of jurors already discussing the diversity issue the festival tackles, it begs the question of why they chose to speak about the topics rather than act. Jessica Chastain and Fan Bingbing both spoke of the importance to having more women at the head in films in order to appropriately depict them in films, while Will Smith voiced concern over the lack of artists of color. It seems that their voices were not enough to influence a larger change, as the jury chose arguably one of the whitest, most misogynistic films on the program to reward with the highest honor.
Actions speak louder than words. Until action is taken, Cannes will continue to be criticized for being a playground and haven for the wealthy and privileged to thrive in, and a place where everyone who does not fit into this traditional mold to fight much harder to tell their stories. Hopefully the jury panels going forward will take this into consideration before making final decisions.
So, all that's left to say, in the words of disappointed sports fans everywhere at the end of a lackluster postseason: Il y a toujours l'année prochaine...
A complete list of films that were in competition for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d'Or, is available on the festival's website, as is a press conference with the team behind "The Square."
Can you distinguish the truth from the lies? No Googling!
1. Woody Harrelson's dad was a contract killer.
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