If You Want People to Embrace Tolerance, Don’t Make a Movie Like ‘The Square’

A few days ago, I entered a local contest to win tickets to see the Swedish movie, The Square. I actually won, and given my love of Scandinavian culture and knowing that the movie won an award at the Cannes Film Festival this year, I entered the movie theater with high hopes. I left an excruciating two-and-a-half hours later shaking my head in bewilderment. Thankfully, the tickets were free because I would have been disappointed to have paid good money to see it.

If you haven’t heard of The Square, the best line I’ve seen to describe it is, “It’s too surprising to spoil and too weird to explain.” The only positive thing about the movie was that it was aesthetically beautiful (and there’s a scene where a character hates on the Comic Sans font). But my biggest complaint isn’t how weird the movie was (and it was extremely weird), it was that they beat the audience over the head again and again with the message that we must accept people who are different from us rather than let them come to their own conclusions.

To attempt a brief summary of the film, the main character, Christian (played by Claes Bang), is chief curator of a Swedish art museum. The museum is bringing in a new exhibit called “The Square,” literally a square in the ground described as “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” It sounds like an interesting premise, but the movie fails to develop it coherently.

The movie focuses primarily on the treatment of beggars and people of other races. You see random shots of beggars on the streets throughout the movie (subtlety is not the movie’s strong suit), and the characters interact with beggars in some scenes. Other scenes are simply bizarre: Christian sleeps with a character played by Elisabeth Moss, and not only is the sex scene weird and uncomfortable, but there is an unexplained chimpanzee roaming around her apartment while they are having sex (seriously, what was the point of the chimpanzee?).

In probably the most uncomfortable scene of the movie, set during a fancy dinner at the art museum, there’s an interactive art show where an ape-like man goes around and singles out a few guests and begins playing with their hair and grunting at them. Things then turn violent as he breaks glasses and throws chairs. Everyone is visibly uncomfortable, but instead of leaving, they sit in their chairs silently and stare down at their plates, hoping the man won’t come bother them. At the end, he singles out a young woman and yanks her by the hair out of her chair and across the floor, where it appears he is attempting to rape her. Even though she screams for help, the crowd delays rushing to her aid (they eventually do). If this was supposed to be an example of accepting people who are different from you, the movie does a terrible job of conveying the message.

The most ridiculous scene features Christian’s interactions with a young boy (who is tan with black hair, so we’re led to assume that he’s not a native Swede). Christian accidentally accused the boy of stealing his phone and wallet and the boy’s parents punished him. As a result, the boy begins aggressively stalking Christian until he apologizes. Christian refuses, a heated argument develops, and the boy eventually figures out where Christian lives and harasses him and his neighbors; in a dramatic moment, Christian accidentally pushes him down a flight of stairs. Instead of seeing if the boy is OK (the morally correct thing to do), he makes a feeble apology later via video. The apology turns into a speech about accepting difference, but the only thing viewers will remember is Christian’s defensiveness and overreaction to the provocations of a child.

Sweden has taken in more immigrants per capita than any other European country during the current refugee crisis, which may have inspired the film. Good or bad, there are a lot of non-native Swedes in the country right now. I volunteer at the local American Swedish Historical Museum (I told you I love Scandinavian culture), and they recently launched an exhibit exploring the lives of refugees through photographs. Some photographs tell the story of a family or a child who escaped from Syria and others show the various places where refugee children have to sleep each night. It’s a poignant exhibit, and includes information about how to help these refugees, if you’re so inclined.

Unlike The Square, the museum isn’t forcing information down your throat or beating you over the head with confusing messages. The exhibit simply shows you the reality of refugees’ lives and lets you reach your own conclusions. The Square had a great message, but in attempting to tell it, the filmmakers merely succeeded in making the audience confused and uncomfortable—and not in a good way. It’s a shame the filmmakers decided to make a movie that embraces moral posturing rather than meaningful dialogue about the rewards and challenges of accepting others.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

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