Claes Bang’s Christian and Johannes Kuhnke’s Tomas are sides to a coin, as are the pair of unsettling Swedish dark comedies they lead. The Square (2017) and Force Majeure (2014) are idiosyncratic takes on what it means to be a man in the twenty-first century, pitting their protagonists against absurd situations in the form of everything from performance art to spousal interrogation, but their respective deconstructions occur through vastly different lenses. The Square, this year’s Palme d’Or winner at Festival de Cannes, takes its cues from the Stockholm art world, bludgeoning the artistic ego into submission amidst a tale of social hypocrisy. Its Alps-set cousin Force Majeure on the other hand, like the avalanche that sets its events into motion, focuses on the thundering force of nature that is the male id.
In totality, these seemingly disparate Östlund treatises on modern masculinity form a devastating whole, cutting straight to the heart of both ‘nurture’ and ‘nature’ as they apply to men, in the form of biting social satire.
The idea of an avalanche engulfing a vacationing family seems like a terrifying premise. On a personal note, that’s all I knew about Force Majeure going in: it’s an avalanche movie. My dread upon seeing this smiling quartet – Tomas, Ebba, Vera and Harry – making their way up the slopes and dining in the open air was matched only by my confusion as the avalanche came and went, merely covering the restaurant in the snow and leaving the family physically unharmed. Emotionally, though? That’s a different story.
The limpness of the avalanche is eclipsed only by the limpness of Tomas himself. Amidst the snowy tidal wave, he may or may not have bolted from the table and left his wife and kids behind. The rest of the film unfolds in the form of the slow yet steady unraveling of his sense of self as his wife scrambles to get him to admit the truth, the avalanche having trapped them metaphorically within its moment of arrival, and having trapped Tomas within his worst existential nightmare. He lies to protect his position as the head of his household, denying any and all allegations that he would leave his family behind for even a second, but Ebba and the kids seem to know the truth.
Rather than admit he acted in a moment of weakness or selfishness (or quite simply, fear) Tomas bends over backwards The Matrix-style to avoid his the inquiries being fired his way, be it by his wife, his children, or their friends Mats and Fanni. Mats (Kristofer Hivju, The Fate of the Furious) takes a gentler approach. He recognizes Tomas’ fragility and all that would become of him if he admitted he acted in fear, leading to him walking a line between defending Tomas’ actions (suggesting he ran away with the intention of returning to rescue his family) and having to defend the way Fanni thinks he would’ve reacted in that scenario, as both men are suddenly forced to introspect.
This primal rigmarole climaxes twice. Once, with Tomas having a childish breakdown outside his hotel room, naked, his entire masculine façade having come crashing down as he lashes out and wails about hating himself. And the second time, as the two couples are leaving their holiday destination. Tomas, having regained a sense of equilibrium after rescuing Ebba from a thick fog (was she in need of rescue? Who’s to say) now facilitates the exodus of the entire tour group from their bus and its dangerous driver. As he and Mats lead the group down the winding mountain, he carries his child in his arms. A stranger offers him a cigarette. He doesn’t smoke, but he accepts, embodying a heroic, even messianic masculine self-image as he leads this temporary tribe out of a situation that’s anything but dangerous.
It takes little to knock him off his pedestal, and littler still to convince him he’s worthy of regaining it.
Where Force Majeure’s rural setting allows man (or rather, men) to confront their nature, The Square takes on a more intellectually challenging space – on multiple fronts. The eponymous art installation just outside the museum, a four meter-by four meter cordoned off section, is said to be “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Though what does that say for anyone outside it?
Christian is the museum’s curator and its public face, a man concerned with pushing the limits of art in a way that makes us more socially conscious. Right from the get-go however, it’s established that Christian is a quiet hypocrite. A low-key version of the very people he wants to influence & change, in ways that he doesn’t fully realize. He saves a woman in peril on the street, but rather than comforting her afterward, he celebrates with the other man who helped ward off her attacker as the two enjoy their rush of adrenaline while also refusing even a penny to the homeless men littered across the streets around them, despite his many sermons on the betterment of society. It is, however, a moment of heroism rendered worthless as his pocket is picked sometime during this exchange, but it takes him too long to notice. He’s far too blinded by his apparent heroism.
He is the classier Tomas. The artistic Tomas, draped in a scarf and thick-rimmed glasses. The more successful Tomas, put in charge of spaces meant to comfort and challenge, and a version of Tomas who seems much more put together on the surface. He is also the more dangerous Tomas.
Rather than bursting forth as raw aggression, his more dignified strand of social masculinity seeps out in the form of his art, in what might be the single most uncomfortable scene in any film this year. Terry Notary, Planet of the Apes motion-capture extraordinaire, features prominently in a video at the museum, grunting like the primates he plays on screen beneath layers of digital artifice. At a dinner to celebrate Christian’s bold new vision, an attempt to test the limits of artistic performance goes awry. Notary, in the flesh and “in-character,” makes his way through the fancy banquet, jumping up on tables and harassing rich museum patrons until the line between art and assault becomes blurred, with onlookers wondering when might be the right time to intervene.
Notary’s setpiece plays like an extension of Christian himself. Elsewhere, as the classy curator’s self-righteous actions find themselves harming others in ludicrous ways – his attempts to regain his stolen wallet have incurred the wrath of an angry tween! – Notary is let loose upon the art world like an unleashed avatar of Christian’s underlying uncouthness. Not as hidden, suppressed impulses, but a twisted, ape-like reflection of this man who walks so upright his nose is pointed constantly upward.
The imagery of the ape works its way into his sex life as well, not as a metaphor for the animalistic nature of his sexual conquests, but as an externalization of his emotional passivity. It’s a strange, confounding subversion – a calm chimpanzee appears in the apartment of a woman he sleeps with and ignores (Elizabeth Moss) – but the ape goes about its business without paying him any mind, despite being the center of his attention. Yet Christian is so blinded by ego, to the point of refusing to discard his used condom lest Moss’ Anne try and use his semen (he is, in his own mind, a celebrity) that he never questions the ape’s appearance, let alone what it might mean for him, even as a curator of abstract art.
Pushing the limits of his installations ultimately lands him in hot water – some of it unreasonable, some it perfectly justified – but rather than engaging honestly with the art or with the people in his life, he becomes stuck in an existential loop of being unable to make up for his last big mistake in a timely manner, before moving on to a more recent transgression that he’s also too late to atone for. Moments of realization rendered worthless after having spent far too long blinded by masculine ego, like having his shot at redemption stolen along with his wallet.
Together, Christian and Tomas represent the totality of masculine psyche. Conditioned male reasoning and repressed male emotion in their worst forms, the kind concerned only with self-preservation even to the point of self-detriment. But where Tomas gets to at least feel like he’s atoned (he hasn’t), Christian isn’t even afforded that much. His ego and allure may elevate him socially and intellectually, but his behaviour is still very much akin to an ape – in spirit, and in unruly effect – or rather, like that of Tomas when he breaks down and cries in the hallway.