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The best thing about BBC 5 Live podcast, Brexitcast, is its lack of lamenting

In a moment characterised by communal horror, Brexitcast sounds fairly relaxed - even normal.

“If Brexit were a movie, what would it be? The NeverEnding Story? Groundhog Day?” BBC commentators Katya Adler, Adam Fleming, Laura Kuenssberg and Chris Mason take the measure of Brexit’s sticky wicket in Brexitcast – which, as a rule, is pleasingly slow to disintegrate into too much baby-talk. Only occasionally does it burble such lines as, “I’m just about to WhatsApp you all a video of a sheepdog going into Chequers!” And there’s usually some sighing over bygone professional European Union-watcher perks. “Gone are the days when we had stollen,” mourned Adler recently. “Today, just a tangerine.” Kuenssberg talks in the longest paragraphs, finding such flavour in market access agreements she makes me think of a hunger-maddened bear emerging from a winter’s hibernation. And Mason in the middle, as presenter, wrangling all of them in a pretty casual way.

Probably the best thing about Brexitcast is that there isn’t a great deal of lamenting going on. (Unequivocal lamenting is the tone of our times. Communal horror turns out to be the ultimate networking opportunity.) But since we now find ourselves in a world where everybody (pundit, politician, social movement) more than ever wants to win, Brexitcast sounds fairly relaxed and normal (somewhat in the spirit of the peerless Glaswegian comedian Limmy’s recent tweet, “Take your head out your fucking arse and speak like you’re at a bus stop.”) Whereas the BBC reporter Chris Morris sounded like he’d been off for a season shooting albatross when he dozily initiated the involvement of a whirring jukebox in the third series of his Radio 4 show Brexit: a Guide for the Perplexed (“I wonder what our Brexit jukebox has got to say about this? BEEEEEP UNDERSTATEMENT ALERT!”).

Thankfully, radio has been largely resistant to most modes of faux-naivety and shock on the subject. Yet even Norman Smith was at it on Today recently, saying things like, “Let’s be honest, Brexit can do your head in” and, “Let’s put to one side all the easy peasy stuff.” To which Mishal Husain added, in her most exquisite tone of ominous competence: “The language of Brexit, although crucial, can also be fiendishly complicated,” and moved on. 

BBC Radio 5 Live

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The new cold war

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