Ruben Östlund proved in his last film, ‘Force Majeure‘, that he takes his awkward comedy very seriously. His Cannes Palme d’Or winning follow-up, ‘The Square’, proves that impulse is only strengthening.
The 2.5-hour episodic epic is a comedy for lack of any other term, but within its cringeworthy giggles lies a movie of great ambition that attempts to tackle a number of themes about art and empathy. If anything, the movie is too ambitious and has too much on its mind. Thankfully, that’s a pretty good problem to have.
The setting is an art museum. The protagonist is the curator, Christian (Claes Bang). He’s enthusiastically introducing a new piece entitled “The Square.” It’s essentially a squared-off piece of concrete which the artist describes as “A sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” It’s a parody of arty farty nonsense and also an amusing commentary on artistic idealism. Because if we need a space where we can feel trusted as equal, what’s that say about the rest of the world? Östlund’s film toys with that theme throughout. Christian is presented as an idealistic nincompoop who puts on a façade of caring when it suits him, but is really only out for himself.
A number of bumbling scenes prove this to be the case. In the opening sequence, he steps in to help a woman in need, then spends more time congratulating the other guy who helped rather than checking on the woman. Then he’s pickpocketed during that same exchange and comes up with a ridiculous way to get his wallet and phone back that shows just how much he fears anyone below his social class even though he claims to be a man of the people. Elsewhere, he engages in a series of hilarious humiliations with a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) from awkward interviews to unprofessional flirting, eventually peaking with an almost unspeakably funny argument about what to do with a used condom. Throughout it all, Östlund poses curious questions about empathy and understanding, and how we choose to help others or not, depending on our own interests.
It peaks with a remarkable sequence in which a performance artist appears at a high-class dinner to perform an act in which he marches around as a primate pushing his audience’s boundaries and testing how far he can go before anyone will intervene. It’s a showstopper, one of the best scenes in any film this year, hilarious and frightening and visceral and thoughtful and symbolic. It’s worth almost taking the scene out of the movie entirely for study and adoration. Not everything in ‘The Square’ lives up to it. In fact, the biggest problem with Östlund’s latest movie is inconsistency. The film is beautifully made, lushly shot and impeccably performed by a sprawling ensemble of actors who know how to mine laughs from pain and pain from laugh, but it’s hard to tell exactly what the hell Östlund wants us to make of it all.
The movie stretches on too long, far past the point of comfort. It brings up a variety of provocative themes about the limits of empathy and intervention and pisses thoroughly all over the closed-off art community. At the same time, the movie is a product of the same closed-off art world that it mocks. It’s a big stylized nose-thumbing that will only appeal to those who care about its esoteric themes, and also mocks them for their self absorption. Östlund has come up with so many delightfully odd and hilarious scenarios here that he can’t quite figure out what to do with them all.
Eventually, the movie stutters to a stop having thoroughly mocked so much about society without ever finding a cohesive purpose. It’s the product of a talented filmmaker following up a breakout success by getting to do whatever he wants and reveling in that opportunity for indulgence. There’s so much to admire here, but it’s ultimately hard to pull it together and figure out what the point is. Perhaps that’s the point, to make you laugh and cringe and stew at so much that Östlund finds wrong with the world and then leave feeling worse about humanity than you came in. Fair enough. There’s plenty to mock and hate about the world. It’s just nice when that sort of provocation comes with a specific purpose. Since ‘The Square’ never quite finds that, it ends up being slightly less than the sum of its remarkable parts.