Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1369, (16-22 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Nothing to say

Hani Mustafa spent some time at the 10th Panorama of European Film

 The Square
The Square

To celebrate its tenth anniversary the Panorama of European Film has expanded its offerings to satisfy its growing audience all across Egypt, extending activities outside of Cairo and offering a mix of major award-winning fare and films that generated wide-ranging interest in the world. Testifying to producer-director Marianne Khoury and her team’s determination and dedication, the event has become a major annual reference point gathering together film lovers of every kind. Some of the films were screened at El Gouna Film Festival but have not been seen in Cairo and are definitely worth a second Egyptian screening anyway.

The highlight of the year just may be Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning The Square, which is at once satirical and profound. The film opens with the protagonist Christian (Claes Bang), the director of the Contemporary Art Museum in Stockholm, being interviewed by an American journalist named Anne (Elisabeth Moss). Exposing the man’s pretensions and overconfidence, the scene makes plenty of room for humour even as it reveals Christian’s character, who is on the verge of losing control. The film is named after an installation by an Argentine artist being organised by the museum, which is promoted with these words: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligation.”

This may indeed be what the film is about, since the action examines human trust and especially its failure more than any other theme. The writer-director relies on the satirical sketch format to illuminate the central character. The script divides into two dramatic lines, moving from one to the other throughout. The first concerns Christian’s job as museum director, especially preparations for “The Square” and the various stages of promoting it, with two young men from the relevant advertising company generating much of the comedy. One idea they have for an ad, for example, is a YouTube video featuring a homeless little girl exploding within a square; they are only interested in maximising the number of views. In this episode Östlund manages to hit several birds with one stone. He critiques the advertising mentality and how it flattens out ideas and values, comments on YouTubers’ and social media enthusiasts’ obsession with hits regardless of substance and builds up to a moment towards the end when, the museum’s reputation having suffered, Christian has to tender his resignation in a press conference. 

Nothing to say

The second line starts with a street scene in which Christian encounters a young woman running in terror of a man she claims wants to kill her, but after Christian saves her he discovers that his phone and wallet have been stolen. This too concerns the same philosophical question of trust, especially when Christian’s subordinate at work suggests that he should write to the thief a message of warning and leave a copy of it for every flat in the building to which his phone has been traced. In one tense scene Christian and his subordinate set off to the 15-storey building with the object of placing a letter in the mail slot at each door. One interesting development is the response of a child who seems to be a refugee but courageously decides to defend himself after Christian’s letter convinces his father that he really did steal, so he decides to go after Christian in turn and ask him to meet his father and family and declare that the child stole nothing from him. This goes on till the end of the film, when Christian feels sufficiently guilty to apologise to the child in front of his family.

The film’s most important scene – a shot of which is on the poster – concerns the reception given by the museum to promote the installation, to which major critics and art lovers are invited. The party features a scene in which a physically strong actor performs the role of an ape, which explains the warning everyone finds on the table telling them that a wild creature will pass among them and they are to remain calm. By the time Christian calls for a round of applause the actor is so carried away he tries to attack a female guest, who is saved by a large number of male guests who attack the man-ape and give him a vigorous beating. Terry Notary, who participated in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) and War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) as movement choreographer, gives an excellent performance. Like the YouTube video and the message of warning, this too is a bright idea that turns out to be catastrophic because it involves the breakdown of trust and confidence.

Christian’s character is tightly constructed, something that is particularly clear in the scene in which Anne takes him home with her and after they have sex he insists on throwing the condom away in person – something that erodes her feelings of closeness as she suspects he believes she wants to steal his semen. Later Ann confronts him at the museum, saying she would not have slept with him if she had not felt more than a passing attraction whereas he treated her with arrogance and insensitivity. Here as elsewhere Östlund shows a penchant for exaggeration, since the space where they have their confrontation just happens to be a hall in which the installation on show consists of seats thrown over each other with the amplified sound of those seats falling over.


Though in a completely different way, art is also at the centre of Julian Rosefeldt’s Manifesto. Here art does not manifest through the main character or through the drama but rather in the modernist structure of the whole work and the content of its dialogue as well as the narration that accompanies most of its sequences. The Panorama thus brings over not only outstanding films but those that constitute possible turning points or benchmarks in the history of cinema. Manifesto, an extremely complex and unique work of art, was first screened at the end of 2015 as a video installation in Melbourne, Australia, where 13 different screens showed the 13 different characters played by the Australian Hollywood actress Cate Blanchett, two time Oscar and three time Golden Globe winner. Only later did Rosefeldt convert it into a movie which premiered in 2017, screening at festivals including Sundance and El Gouna.


The film opens with Cate Blanchett’s voice saying, “All that is solid melts into air”, a sentence from the Communist Manifesto (1848), followed by “To put out a manifesto you must want: ABC to fulminate against 1,2,3” from the Dada Manifesto (1918) by Tristan Tzara. Thus the film presents itself as a comment on or a summary of 19th- and 20th-century schools of thought. In the first sequence, Blanchett plays a bearded homeless man accompanied by a black dog pulling a roll-along metal case among derelict buildings in a post-industrial (or indeed post-apocalypse) space depicted beautifully. The homeless man proceeds while the viewer hears an extract of the Communist Manifesto. And likewise the rest of the sequences: Blanchett brilliantly portrays a factory worker, a stock exchange employee, a Russian choreographer, a school teacher. And in every case the direction and photography or powerful modernist compositions.

The human voice takes one of two forms in this work: the direct narration accompanying, for example, a woman riding her motorbike to the waste lab where she works after waking her daughter, which works well enough even if the text bears no direct relation to the photography; or the character is seen putting forth on some occasion or other, herself pronouncing the chosen texts, such as a woman at a funeral reading out the Dada Manifesto as if it were the eulogy; or a school teacher reading out the Dogma 95 Manifesto as if she was explaining a primary school lesson. This structure allows the film to carry a variety of aesthetic and philosophical meanings, depicting a long stretch of the history of thought and reflecting an irreverent sense of the absurd in the process.

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