By Elias Savada.
Auteur provocateur Ruben Östlund loves to pick at society’s scabs – and make you laugh and writhe at any unsettling pus that oozes out. As with the squirm-inducing Force Majeure (2014), the Swedish writer-director’s funny-sad journey into middleclass smugness, The Square, his latest bourgeois boil being lanced, viewers will be trick-and-treated to an excruciatingly surgical and slyly satirical examination of the class system. His heartless muse is the slick-haired Christian (a perfect Claes Bang), an intelligent modern/contemporary art museum curator who fashions himself somewhat perfect, but whose sleazy sanctity and guileless naivety is torn apart by angry winds of chaos.
The film pushes its contempt for elitism in the art world via the titular exhibit, a sociologically aesthetic 4×4 meter space from an Argentinean artist that the museum is mounting in its outside courtyard. Described as a “sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations,” it’s hard to believe the fast-paced hordes that hurry about Stockholm will turn away from their smart phones to find peace and tranquility in a space the size of an elevator.
The dark fun that surrounds this new installation spreads out into several distinct arenas. First, Christian unwittingly becomes the happy participant in a singularly focused street performance during the morning rush hour. Taking his focus away from his cell phone as a small scream of “Help!” falls to his ears, he assists in preventing a young woman from a perceived assault. The brief adrenaline rush provides a gung-ho, high-five moment, as he looks about, hoping for some public recognition that he isn’t the privileged coward you know he is. His resolve fades with the realization that he’s been the victim of a pickpocket. That hoped for pat on the back has morphed into a kick in the butt.
The theft of Christian’s smart phone pushes out into a secondary plot propelled by the Find Your iPhone app. (If you take anything away from this film, whether you like it or not, please register your Apple devices and learn how to trace them if lost or stolen.) Christian and one his employees hatch an absolutely ridiculous plot revolving around the residents in a low-income tenement. This misguided solution resolves one problem, but creates an annoying domino effect that eventually pushes the well-to-do curator to realize that he has very little compassion for the well-to-don’ts.
In promoting the new exhibit, the curatorial staff take on a rogue public relations firm with two media-savvy young men who take promoting it with a YouTube video to disastrous levels. Here Östlund is picking at the polarizing repercussions that social media causes through manipulated imagery.
Another focus of Östlund’s sharp wit is the flailing relationship that finds Anne (a bright and brilliant Elizabeth Moss), an American art enthusiast and journalist who ends up sharing her bed with Christian. Their elongated post-coital conversation turns perplexingly funny when he refuses to part with the condom he just used (Half empty/half full? Filled with fake news?), but the absurd argument is totally ignored by the elephant in the room. Actually, right metaphor, wrong species. Anne shares her apartment with a chimpanzee.
The pretentiousness that fills almost every scene runs hot and cold. Unfortunately, Östlund takes way too long (2½ hours) to present his case. He could have cut some of the multiple provocations which tear the central character off his moorings, including some of the sideward glances the divorced Christian showers on his daughters. But some sequences are priceless and powerful, including one brilliant 11-minute episode featuring stunt coordinator and motion-capture artist Terry Notary. At a lavish dinner for the museum’s donors, he plays Oleg Rogozjin, an actor as performance artist impersonating a savage, muscular caveman, bare chested among the business attired guests. At first curious, he earns applause from the patrons before he takes his character to fiercely crazed heights, taking aim first at one impatient diner (Dominic West) before sending the stunned room into an even more primitive frenzy.
Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and one of the high profile films contending for the best picture as the European Film Awards, this moral fable treads along the same paths as those found in the works of the late revolutionary director Luis Buñuel, whose journey’s into surrealism were biting and poetic. While Östlund refrains from slicing an eyeball like Buñuel did in the classic Un Chien Andalou, the shocks in The Square are just as emotionally demanding.
The Square is impressive social commentary that needs to be seen and debated. Östlund is “thrilled when someone tells me they have been discussing my film all night with friends, because then my film has initiated change outside of the cinema theatre.” You may be enraged after seeing it, but it is a serious piece of art.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He served as an executive producer on the 2015 horror film German Angst, Penny Lane’s award-winning documentary Nuts!, and the forthcoming supernatural thriller Ayla. He co-authored, with David J. Skal, Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning (the revised edition will be published in 2017 by Centipede Press).