Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Secret Location near London - Lost At Sea, 29-30 August

The Lost Lectures' mission statement is to take talks out of institutions and into inspiring new spaces. The location of its upcoming event is secret, but we do know it will be somewhere wet enough to call for the audience to be seated on inflatables. The speakers will include an explorer, a photographer, scientists, puppeteers, and comedians, and the talks will be accompanied by zany interactive classes, including pigeon racing and pizza making.


British Library, London - Wonderlands: Children's Literature Festival, 24 - 26 August

If one is to believe the Olympics opening ceremony, the British heritage of children’s literature is one of our great accomplishments. In celebration of this tradition the British Library is holding three days of stories, drawings, conversations and talks from big name writers including Michael Rosen, David Almond and Michael Morpurgo. Alongside the ticketed events, visitors are invited to drop into the free storytelling tent where they will be immersed in tales from around the world.


Noel Coward Theatre, London – Julius Caeser, 15 August - 15 September

Shakespeare's famous political thriller Julius Caeser is invigorated in this RSC adaption, which transplants the action from Rome to Africa. Critics have found powerful contemporary echoes in the piece and it has already garnered several five star reviews. Gregory Doran is in the director’s seat and is complemented by a cast including Paterson Joseph as Brutus, Cyril Nri as Cassius, Ray Fearon as Mark Antony and Jeffery Kissoon as Caesar.


BBC2 – Murder, 26 August 10pm

Birger Larson likes his verbs deadly. This Sunday the acclaimed danish director of The Killing brings death and intrigue to Britain with a one off program Murder. Following the death of a young girl, the action leaves the traditional grounds of court-rooms and police stations to let the viewer play jury in a series of character testimonies delivered straight to the camera. As well as being set and filmed in Nottingham, it features an impressive array of local talent including Joe Dempsie, Stephen Dillane, and Lauren Socha and is written by Bafta award-winning Robert Jones and Kath Mattock.


Various Independent Cinemas – F for Fake, August

The Sight and Sound Poll might have recently deposed Orson Welles from his throne, but the critics who still toast him as the best director of all time (of whom there are many) will be pleased to hear that his last completed work is currently showing in independent cinemas across the capital. A testament to misdirection of the sort Orson was so fond of as a director, F for Fake is a ‘documentary’ about two notorious fakers, which examines the nature of artistic authenticity.

Director Orson Welles, whose 1973 classic "F for Fake" is playing in selected London cinemas this month
Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game