On DT’s first anniversary as an elected official, one can’t help but reflect how this last year has changed us. In one poignant moment in Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s latest film, The Square—this year’s Palme d’Or winner about a conceptual art exhibit by the same name—a PR agent for the exhibit declares art must now hold its own against “disasters, terrorism, and moves by right-wing politicians.” Although we can identify the satire at play, his words unsettle because of the change they acknowledge—this heightened politicization of our own viewer’s eye.
We have spent over a year feeling strung out, battered, and bruised on a daily basis not only as we wait for what the news or the next Twitter update will bring, but also as we dig up the internalized societal faults we carry with us. More than anything, this has been a year of looking inward—deconstructing the sources of our own self-narrative and putting them on trial. The films of Ruben Ostlund and Yorgos Lanthimos have never shied away from this challenge, but within our heightened meta awareness, their message packs a deeper punch.
In the opening scenes of The Square we meet Christian (Claes Bang), a fashionably handsome curator of Stockholm’s X-Royal Museum, as he attempts to generate buzz for an upcoming exhibit. In a long wide-angle shot, a crane demolishes a historical statue at the front of the museum and prepares for the new installation: a glowing square inlaid in the street’s cobblestones next to a plaque that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”
But, outside of the square, the opposite seems to be true. As Christian walks to work he and a neighboring man are confronted by a woman screaming for help, pointing off screen to a man charging towards her. As the woman hides behind them, Christian and his comrade in arms puff up their chests and seem to scare the unseen man away. Afterwards, rather than turn around to make sure the woman is okay, the two men hug and congratulate each other on a job well done. Later, once the adrenaline and excitement have worn off, Christian realizes it was all a pickpocketing scheme, and he arrives at work sans wallet, phone, and a nice pair of cufflinks. Christian enlists the help of his colleges and tracks his phone to a low-income housing project where they drive, in his souped-up Tesla, to slip notes under each apartment door asking for the safe return of his things.
Although Christian’s intentions throughout The Square seem to align themselves with the plaque’s message he cares so deeply about, he seems blissfully unaware of his own entitlements and class judgements. Although the message of the film gets muddled over the course of its two and a half hours, Ostlund’s mastery of staging allows the film’s background visuals to play up the dramatic irony inherent in the dialogue exchanged between characters, making every scene pulsate with energy. There is one memorable moment where Christian and an American reporter (pitch-perfect Elizabeth Moss) argue in terse whispers on the gallery floor while an installation of precariously stacked chairs teeters in the background between the two. The looped recorded sound of chairs falling all around them adds just the right amount of weight and dread to the words exchanged. Ostlund pushes Christian to the point where he can see his aristocratic worldview teetering, but we, as viewers, know the chairs have already fallen.
In Lanthimos’ new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Colin Farrell plays Steven, a heart surgeon who lives comfortably in a quiet American suburb with his wife (Nicole Kidman) and two children. Like The Square’s Christian, Farrell’s Steven believes himself to be governed by a strong code of morals and justice. When, years ago, a man died on his operating table (which may or may not have been because Steven was drinking beforehand), Steven felt an obligation to step in as a pseudo-father figure to the teenaged son the man left behind. It becomes clear very early in the film that this relationship is anything but ideal. The teenage boy (in a breakout role for Barry Keoghan, seen earlier this year in Dunkirk) seeks out his own form of justice. In a macabre twist that has become synonymous with Lanthimos’ name, the boy has psychological or paranormal power that causes Steven’s family to slowly succumb to potentially fatal ailments. The cure? Steven’s must repay his debt in a sacrificial way that harkens back to the myth of Agamemnon and the tales of the New Testament.
If this film was made by anyone else, it would run the obvious risk of embracing melodramatic and exploitative horror. But Lanthimos distances us from the emotion of the sacrifice by pointing out the absurdity of the world, rather than choice that Steven must make within it. The characters speak to each other in flat, lifeless tones, even about personal matters. We watch as Steven and his wife copulate by role-playing “general anesthesia” patients and their children muse over what toys of the other they would inherit if one of them were to die.
In both The Square and The Killing of a Sacred Deer the moral high ground of the elite, upper-class protagonists comes crumbling down. Lanthimos opens his film with a twenty-second close-up of a real human heart beating back a pulse before the looming surgical knife. This physical, bodily object beats stronger than anything else in the rest of the film. In a similar moment of brilliance within The Square, a performance artist, played by Plant of the Apes stuntman Terry Notary, pushes the boundaries of his art in a crowded black-tie event that leaves the patrons and the audience in the theater sweaty palmed and fearful of his animalistic rage. Both Ostlund and Lanthimos subvert what it means to have humanity and heart in a world where it seems so easy to call yourself one of the good guys.