Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Dominic West, Christopher Læssø
Director: Ruben Östlund
The Square, the new film from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund, opens with a scene in which the film’s protagonist, the charming curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, is engaged in an interview with an American journalist. She points to a particularly convoluted passage on the museum’s website and asks if he would be so kind to explain. He tries, but it’s obvious he has no idea what it means either.
Winner of last year’s Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, and a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the recently held Oscars, The Square is a pitch-black satire on the pretensions of the modern art world. Östlund seizes the opportunity to poke fun at the faux intellectualism of its practitioners and patrons, and he specializes in a brand of humor that is oddly discomfiting.
It’s evident – from a scene in which a man with Tourette’s repeatedly yells out obscenities during a masterclass at the museum, or one involving a fight over the disposal of a used condom – that Östlund is straining the fine line between what’s funny and what makes us cringe. Nothing demonstrates that better than the film’s most unsettling sequence in which a performance artist, imitating an ape for the entertainment of rich patrons at a fancy fundraiser, runs amok.
To be fair, it’s an intelligent but overstuffed film that’s bursting with ideas and subplots, although the main focus is on Christian, the afore-mentioned museum curator, and his wavering moral compass. After he’s robbed of his phone and his wallet while trying to help a stranger in the street, he tracks the phone’s whereabouts using a locator app and leaves threatening letters for all the residents of the building where the stolen items might be. Bad decision.
He makes a series of bad decisions, in fact, that have real consequences, and Danish actor Claes Bang, who plays the part, embraces the film’s absurdist humor with real flair. He’s terrific as the flawed hero and oozes leading-man charm.
I’ll leave you to discover the pleasures of “The Square” for yourself, but anyone who’s watched Ostlund’s last film, the terrific Force Majeure should have a good idea what to expect. That film, which raised questions about masculinity and cowardice, was triggered by a man’s split-second reflex to escape to safety instead of looking out for his wife and children when confronted by a sudden avalanche. In comparison, The Square is a more bloated film whose parts are greater than the whole.
Nevertheless, it’s fresh, and thought-provoking and provocative in the way that few films are. I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for The Square. At over two hours and thirty minutes, it demands patience. But stick with it and you’ll be rewarded.