Every year I follow the coverage of the Cannes Film Festival and every year I get excited. 2017’s festival didn’t seem overly notable while it was going on given that no one movie ever really stood out as being terribly important. Everything seemed to just get a B or B+ from critics and for the most part people spent more time talking about Netflix than about the movies. Still there were definitely a decent number of movies to look forward to and for a variety of reasons it seems that we’re actually having something of a banner year for Cannes competitors actually showing up in American theaters in a timely manner. By my count eight of the nineteen movies that played in the main competition have gotten American releases including two movies that showed up in my city just this week: BPM (Beats Per Minute) and The Square. Coincidentally those happen to be the two movies that ended up taking the Palme d’Or and the Gran Prix, which are the first place and second place at the festival. BPM (Beats Per Minute) was the movie that seemed to get the most enthusiastic reviews while the festival was going on, but it was The Square that Pedro Almodóvar and his jury ended up selecting, a decision that most analysts thought was a surprise but one that made sense to them in retrospect. These are both big and important movies that probably deserve to be looked at individually, but the novelty of being able to look at the top two films from Cannes side by side (plus, admittedly, the pressure to avoid getting behind on my reviews) inspired me to look at them together and decide whether the jury got it right.
BPM (Beats Per Minute) is set in France during the 1990s and focuses on the Parisian branch of the famous AIDS activist organization ACT UP. It begins with some new members being inducted and trained in the group’s mission and methodology but the film doesn’t necessarily focus in on those new members and instead becomes a true ensemble piece which becomes something of a procedural look at a year or so of the group’s activities including a number of scenes where you get to be a fly on the wall as the members debate strategy and group priorities. The Square by contrast has more of a central character but also largely functions as a look into the inner-workings of a community of sorts, namely a modern art museum in Stockholm. Our focus is a guy named Christian (Claes Bang) a curator who is getting the museum ready for its newest exhibit, a conceptual piece called “The Square,” which is a square drawn in the center of a room with a plaque next to it which reads: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” While prepping for this exhibit Christian suddenly finds himself distracted from a number of personal and professional problems as he obsesses over retrieving his cell phone and wallet that were stolen from him during a pickpocketing.
It is probably worth noting that neither of these movies came from directors that I was eagerly awaiting new films from. BPM (Beats Per Minute) was directed by a guy named Robin Campillo, whose directorial output I’m not familiar with but who was a co-writer and editor on a 2008 Palme d’Or winning film called The Class which I liked quite a bit but which never really made a big splash when it left the Croisette and went out into the world. That film followed a teacher as he taught French literature to a class of urban students over the course of a year and the activist meetings in his newest film definitely share a DNA with the classroom sequences that made up the majority of that film. The Square’s director, Ruben Östlund, is probably the guy the film world was more excitedly waiting for a new film from. Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, was an extremely well received satire about a man who finds himself confronting his own shortcomings while on a ski trip with his family after he runs like a coward when his family is put in danger’s way. I got what that film was doing and could see why people liked it but it didn’t really do much for me; I never really found it all that funny, I thought its sub-plots were unneeded distractions, and I don’t think its interest in the fractured male ego ever really went anywhere after the initial setup.
The Square, worked a lot better for me than Force Majeure in no small part because its humor just seemed a bit more on point but also because I found its anxieties more relatable. I don’t have a family and I make no claims to being some courageous protector, so the concept of being exposed as a coward does not exactly hit home with me. The Square on the other hand is about the prospect of being exposed as a jerk, as someone whose behavior doesn’t come close to matching your ideals and who maybe isn’t as brilliant and in control as you think you are. The main character, Christian, seems like he should be the platonic ideal of an upper-class European. He’s wealthy, attractive, intellectual, and somewhat powerful, and yet heavy rests the crown because he seems to spend a lot of the film trying to maintain his reputation despite everything going wrong. Christian is not an asshole exactly; he certainly doesn’t go out of his way to hurt anyone and he generally doesn’t have evil intentions but he proves to be rather oblivious to the damage he occasionally causes and also proves to be rather flexible in his ideals when put to the test. His solution to getting his wallet stolen, dropping a threatening letter into every mailbox in a low-rent apartment building, is a pretty good example of this. It’s not exactly illegal and not entirely aggressive, but he certainly isn’t thinking about the distress he’s causing everyone else in that building and this comes back to bite him in a big way.
Of course Christian’s first world problems would seem to be even more pathetic when compared to the ACT UP members chronicled in BPM (Beats Per Minute), who are fighting very hard for their ideals but also for their very lives. Campillo’s movie is at its best when it sits back and observes these activists’ interact with each other and plan their various protests. These scenes capture both the youthful passion of these activists but also doesn’t depict them as immature fools and also has an interesting ear for the tempo of the kind of arguments that emerge in these settings. The focus of the movie is ultimately on the people rather than the politics, the various issues being debated like the speed at which clinics share results with the public are not really explained to the audience and the movie isn’t necessarily trying to make much of a case for how effective ACT UP’s brand of confrontational demonstration were in the fight for AIDS research. Where the film starts to falter a bit is when the group breaks up a bit and we start observing these characters act as individuals rather than as a group. I’m thinking particularly of the film’s third act where we watch a character named Sean Dalmazo as his health deteriorates. I wouldn’t call these scenes bad at all but they are a lot more conventional than the movie that surrounds them and feels a lot more like a generic tragic approach to the AIDS epidemic of the kind we used to see out of 90s movies.
If BPM (Beats Per Minute) is a very heartfelt and emotional movie, The Square is a bit brainier and leaves you with a bit more to interpret and dissect. Key amongst its mysteries is what to make of the fictional art exhibit with which it shares its title. Christian seems to view “The Square” as a piece with a rather utopian vision of human cooperation but I think he might be missing the larger point of the piece. The plaque on The Square does read that “within [The Square] we all share equal rights and obligations,” but the implication there is that outside of The Square those lofty ideals are far from guaranteed and more than likely the only reason that those things apply inside The Square is because it sits in the middle of a big well-funded museum with a security team. In some ways that feels like a bit of a metaphor for what these museum curators have always been doing: creating a bubble where various principles exist, but are contained, and then not putting a whole lot of thought into what happens outside of that bubble. This pretty clearly makes the characters in The Square sort of the polar opposites of the ones in BPM (Beats Per Minute) who are if nothing else very dedicated to their ideals and are insistent to the point of sometimes being obnoxious and are very much trying to spread them into the wider world.
So, do I ultimately agree with the choice that the jury made at Cannes? Yeah, in this head to head matchup I do, and of the eight films from that festival’s main competition I would say I liked The Square the best. That doesn’t necessarily mean that The Square is quite the instant classic that some other Palme d’Or winners have been. It is, however, a very clever and very entertaining movie that manages to critique the “elites” in a smart way that doesn’t resort to overstatement or unfair pitchfork waving. This is not to say that BPM (Beats Per Minute) isn’t also a film that’s well worth your time. Those scenes of the activists debating are great but the movie as a whole never quite manages to find an overall structure that really brings it together. Still, it’s a fine movie and certainly a more worthy companion to the great ACT UP documentary How to Survive a Plague than the indie/Hollywood depiction of the era Dallas Buyers Club. However, The Square is the more creative movie and the movie that jumps out at me and which I can see myself revisiting more often. In some ways I think I might “get” Ruben Östlund now in a way I didn’t before and might even want to give Force Majeure another look. Ultimately though these are both fine works of world cinema worthy of your time