The Need for Empathy at 2017 Cannes
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In a remarkable coincidence, two films at Cannes this year, Ruben Ostlund’s award-winning The Square and Kornél Mondruczo’s high-reaching Jupiter’s Moon, had an identical narrative structure and theme: a man in power maltreats a refugee boy to further his own material needs, a modern parable excoriating the lack of empathy in today’s have-and-have-not world. In Ostlund’s The Square, a suave arch-sophisticated curator named Christian (Claes Bang) installs a square in his museum, a space in which visitors can learn about altruism which, as humorous interviews with museum passersby make clear, is not a readily apparent human quality. The case in point, as Christian demonstrates, is a man whose father has just died who can’t even find anyone to listen to him for half an hour. Yet at the same time that the high-minded director pontificates, with intellectual verve, about the need for empathy, he, upset by the sidewalk theft of his cell-phone and wallet, concocts a crazy plot to retrieve his treasured possessions, a “sting” which ruins the life of an innocent refugee boy. Along the same lines, Mondruzco’s film is about a doctor who takes in a refugee boy ostensibly to help him, but in truth to exploit the boy’s gift for flight (the supernatural premise of the film) for profit. Both films take the same trajectory of showing how self-serving these men in power are, to then conclude with the requisite conversion experience where the protagonists, recognizing their moral bankruptcy, try to make amends.
It was uncanny how similar the Swedish and Hungarian films were in their cynical denunciation of the current state of human values—and equally odd that no critic noted their similarity. “How long do you have to wait until we can access your humanity” beeps the automated voice accompanying the Square exhibit. “God is watching you! There is no escape from the injustices of history!” a character in Mondruzsco’s film announces in a similarly apocalyptic vein.
“Our film comments on the Western way of life and the blindness we have: the hypocrisy of modern life,” Claes said at the press conference of The Square. “We all think we are good people, but there are so many things to which we shut our eyes, as it is too much to take in.” The last shot of Jupiter’s Moon similarly urges us to take off blinders. A little boy counts down, in a game of hide-and seek, with his hands over his eyes. “Ready or not here I come!” he says. “’Ready or not here we come!’ the refugees are saying to Europe,” the director explained to me in our interview at Cannes. “The question is whether we are ready to deal with them.”
Of these two moral tales, so similar in intent, Oslund’s is the more successful—and this due to the Swedish director’s greater aesthetic control of his theme: one of the reasons, as jury president Pedro Almodovar commented, that it earned the Palme d’Or. From the beginning, we are taken with the exaggerated use of “white” in the setting of the museum, as well as with the repeated frames on large echoing spaces, from the director’s empty brown-hued apartment to antiseptic monochromatic conference rooms. Each shot seems engineered, in color and lighting, to be a cynical commentary on the sterility and selfishness of upper-class intellectual life. Moreover, breaking the monotony of this highly controlled aesthetic wasteland is, every so often, a fantastic surreal shot: such as a kaleidoscope of floating multi-colored trash which the anguished guilty director searches through to find the refugee boy’s phone number that he, before his moral conversion, had thrown out. Or a sublime random image of high school gymnasts doing flips in blue and white light. Ostlund responded to my observation about his aesthetics:
I focused on visuals in my film because it is spectacular to look at something in a spectacular way. An image creates thoughts, like a painting does. I created that trash scene because I wanted to step up the film and make it surreal. Why is my film so white? Because contemporary art has become like going into a white cube. The exhibit [in Christian’s museum] of a couple piles of gravel on the floor is what you actually find in today’s contemporary art museums. I want the spectator to question what we are doing with our art, with our cinema. Are we doing it out of routine, out of ritual? Do we have something to say?
Ostlund succeeds amply in his ambition to make us question the depth of the art world. Indeed, if one criticism can be leveled at the film it is that his parody of the contemporary art scene is so successful, with one clever dialogue after another ridiculing its futility, that his film, in the first hour, risks becoming a long one-liner joke about the pretentious elite.
Saving the film from its gloss of ironic slickness, however, is the deeper theme of empathy, and a sub-theme introduced mid-way through: that of civilized versus animal behavior, and the fine border between the two. In the most fascinating scene of the movie, tuxedoed and evening gowned guests sit enjoying champagne and lobster at round tables at a posh museum gala organized by Christian. Suddenly an entertainer (Terry Notary) comes out dressed like a gorilla. The powerfully impressive gorilla-man jumps and hoots around the table while the guests politely titter. The howling and jumping become more and more aggressive—in an atmosphere of increasingly tense silence—to escalate into the gorilla man grabbing a dinner guest (a delicate woman in a pink evening dress) and raping her on the floor. True to the central theme about lack of empathy, it takes a long time for anyone to intervene or help.
This pattern of sudden violence (or sex)—followed by lack of ethical concern for the other—repeats throughout the film. At the climax of the film, the museum director suddenly pushes the refugee boy down a flight of stairs and is consequently surprised by his own inhumanity. A mild foreshadowing of this paradigm comes early in the story: in a comic brutal sex scene between the urbane Christian and an American fan (Elizabeth Moss). The two have meaningless sex in fast-motion, then scuffle over control of the man’s semen as a pet monkey hops about. “Monkeys reflect our own selves when we look at them,” commented Ostlund. “They have the same instincts and needs. Christian looks like a primate, trying to deal with life like a human being. The question for us is how can we live together?”
“The square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” the installation pitch reminds us. And yet the “square” is also the geometric shape of the stairwell, where the museum director thrusts the immigrant boy down the stairs.
While sharing a similar vision, in form Jupiter’s Moon is the antithesis of the tightly constructed Square. It is a far-ranging mess sprawling between several genres (from sci fi to social realism to high-tension adventure flick) and boasting an eclectic mix of admonitory messages: the need for empathy, the need for faith in a fallen world, and even a side critique on European refugee policies.
The story begins in outer-space—Jupiter’s moon, in fact—and then abruptly turns into an anguished realistic shot of people crammed in cages in a truck, along with squawking chickens, who a moment later run in a forest in panic while police shoot after them: a scene (over)-signifying the contemporary plight of refugees on the border. Suddenly one boy—about to be shot to death by a fanatic evil cop—raises his arms.
Why? This shift from realism into sci-fi—aside from making the spectator wonder if the film’s title, so seemingly irrelevant, might have a pay-off after all—provokes the major question of the film: what is this miraculous flight supposed to mean?
We spend the rest of the film trying to figure it out.
The boy’s supernatural powers repeat at will, which is fortunate for him (as a Syrian refugee on the run) and proves a promising source of income for the corrupt doctor who takes the vulnerable refugee into his home and turns the grace of flying into a magic trick for show. Everyone who sees the boy rise in the air is dazed with wonder and uplifted in spirit—and pays. This “angel” is the miracle they need to look to the sky, beyond their drab, earth-ridden lives.
“Stern [the doctor] is completely lost in his soul,” Mondruzsco explained to me. “He is cynical. He is drinking. He wants to use this miracle to earn money to serve his problems and his life. So many of us are like that. Yes, he is a bastard. He becomes a good person at the end, because it is more interesting to go from bad to good.” That the world needs angels as a jumpstart to wonder is a refreshingly original message at Cannes, a festival which over the years has become more and more earth-oriented—with very little transcendence besides the occasional “Tree of Life.” What makes this film work, and earned the admiration of many critics, is the earnestness of the director’s message: that we, like the doctor and his various clients, are hovering on earth, so desperately greedily trying to make our broken lives work that we forget to “look up.”
The problem is the “angel”. He is neither particularly good nor interesting. He just happens to have the ability to levitate, with a small smile on his face. Does having an unusual gift make one an angel? Is the prime quality of an angel the ability to fly? “Can we really think of this boy with no qualities as an angel?” I asked the director pointblank. “I think he is an angel,” the director answered sincerely. “He is a real miracle. He is like a mirror. Everyone sees him as a mirror of their lives. He is not a human character. He is coming to help and to deliver what we are exactly looking for.”
It is an interesting twist that an angel can serve as a mirror to our spiritual needs, rather like the stranger who comes to the bourgeois home in Pasolini’s Teorema and ends up a mirror to the petty imperfect inner lives of every member of the family. Still I expect more from angels. As well as from cinematic encounters with them, besides amazement. Many if not most critics observed that Jupiter’s Moon “is stunningly shot”, especially the scenes of flying. But does “stunning” really have valence? The cardboard characters are not substantial enough to make the viewer engage in the moral questions the film so passionately asks. By the end of the film, the plot weakens into a (breathtaking) car chase between the aforementioned evil police officer and the formerly corrupt doctor (whose heart has transformed to goodness) and the boy-angel. The last scene is a “stunning” symbol of transcendence, as the boy breaks through glass and flies off once more. It is an ending that falls flat. By this point, the flying trick, repeated ad infinitum, with upraised arms, needs more than gravity-defiance to make it meaningful.
Still, as was the case with Ostlund, I was moved by the director’s passion for his subject—and his evident conviction that it is not just the doctor who should take up this trajectory: i.e. we too would do well to go from umbilical self-serving pettiness to empathy for the less fortunate. I was also stunned by the deja-vu. I had seen Ostlund’s film just the day before.
Can it be a sign of our times that both films decry our tendency to care more about self-development than our obligation to the other and the planet? Ostlund’s and Mondruczo’s films were not the only ones in Competition betraying a sense of weariness with human self-centeredness and lack of caring. There was also, to cite three conspicuous examples: Andrey Zvyagintsev’s stellar Loveless, about a couple who could not care less about their son (or each other), Serge Loznitsa’s equally accomplished A Gentle Creature, about a Russian woman who can’t get anyone to help her deliver a care package to her husband imprisoned in Siberia; and Yorgos Lanthimo’s wacky cold The Killing a Sacred Deer, in which the ancient Greek concept of “sacrifice” has devolved into heartless comedy (“if you die, can I have your Mp3 player?” says one girl to her brother).
Have we forgotten how to believe in higher truths? Or, as the doctor in Mondruczo’s film says, “in morals”? “Yes!” said Mondruczo earnestly. “’We need to look up to the sky. This expression comes from a friend of mine who is a painter. I feel this is true. We have everything but God. And refugees have nothing except God.”
And that’s why, on screen, we need angels and squares.
Karin Badt is Associate Professor of Cinema and Theater (in English) and member of the Transcrit Research group at the University of Paris 8. She has published on film in Projections, Cineaste, the Boston Globe, Revista Anglosaxona, MovieMaker, Tikkun and other journals, and has a longstanding culture blog on The Huffington Post. She is currently working on a study of trauma in the cinema of Mexican women filmmakers.