The ambiguities of the daily absurd

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Cristian Mungiu (photo) is the new Knight of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, thus rewarded by France for his novel project titled ‘Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest’ . In the meantime, after several years just in the capital city, this small extension of festival is taking place in other Romanian cities too. One of the most prestigious festivals in the world is not quite within reach of any spectator from any part of the world. A consistent synopsis even after half a year represents a chance for movie fans. And apart from the films, taken one by one, the advantage is first of all the taste of a great festival, whose selection is a value in itself. Romanian spectators can thus familiarise themselves with the philosophy of a festival with assumed artistic pretences. After all, to appreciate Cristian Mungiu at his true value as film director we must also understand the universe in which he has kept competing for the past decade. Successfully, because he is not only the sole Romanian to have won a ‘Palme d’or,’ but also the only one that was awarded three times – apart from the mentioned trophy, for two other films he received the award for best screenplay and for best director respectively.

With all its prestige, Cannes inevitably has good years and years that are less good – in other words, the quality of the films varies. And the winners of the awards are not at the same level each year. From certain standpoints, one could say that the past year has not been one of the most remarkable years. Of course, aesthetic opinions have a significant dose of subjectivism, but nevertheless it is not difficult to notice that a masterpiece such as Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake” – which triumphed last year –, of eloquent simplicity like an ancient tragedy, did not have a comparable equivalent this year.

Swedish film director Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” was among the most remarkable of this edition, but with more superficial stakes than the previous ‘Palme d’or.’ A satire first of all, but also with a welcomed dose of ambiguity, without the haste of putting something against the wall. A satire, consequently, without obstinacy, preoccupied more with the reverberations, in time, of the absurd that dots daily life. What happens, for instance, if the cleaning lady of a museum ‘vandalises’ a contemporary art piece? The piece consists of small mounds of gravel geometrically arranged on the floor of a room, and the poor cleaning lady was not quite initiated in “arte povera” and its aesthetic stakes. What follows is a fake? The curator decides that the mounds should be reconstructed, secretly, based on photographs, without informing the artist or the insurance company. It’s not as if you were to try – with a few hasty brush strokes – to remedy the vandalization of a Rembrandt for instance.

But “The Square” has contemporary art not just as backdrop but as existential hermeneutics. At one point, the protagonist has his phone and wallet stolen in the middle of the street. The thieves used a scenario that was a bit more pretentious, cut out for an artistic performance: a woman pretended to be attacked by an extremely aggressive lover, and an accomplice manages to get the target involved in “rescuing” her – and the sympathetic embrace will be fatal for the one who thought he did a good deed. After all, goodness and altruism are the topics not only of the conceptual works promoted by the curator in the film, but also of the film director. When he is trying to expand the stake, ironizing “political correctness,” he no longer manages to be as persuasive. The protagonist has a one-night stand with a foreign journalist. Immediately after intercourse, they fight over who should throw out the condom. The woman suspects that the man is concerned she would want to fraudulently use his sperm. In other words, he – a divorced man who partially looks after two little girls – never wants another complication. The scene, of savoury humour, brings up a certain feminist rhetoric and the pretences of erotic relations that could be, one way or another, offensive for the female partner. Even the protagonist’s belated remorse toward a boy who lost his right to play because of an apparently benign gesture he made – in the attempt to recover his stolen goods – denotes only the inability to promptly understand situations and react determinedly. After all, many such non-pretentious attitudes become difficult to achieve because of a cobweb of fears, comfort and prejudices that we keep weaving in our daily life, sometimes on automatic pilot. Returning to art, one of the film’s percussive scenes proposes a novel performance: an individual looking and behaving brutally was walking like an orangutan in-between but also on top of the tables at a fancy evening party.

At first, fear paralyses the far too bourgeois guests, but in the end the man is the target of lynching – pack violence is unleashed despite the coattails. “The Square” is a tragic comedy, but the (dark) humour is not sufficiently well tempered to allow the (daily) tragedy to dig its roots deeper.