The surprise Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, ‘The Square’ marks the return of queasy art comedy specialist Ruben Östlund following his 2014 breakout success ‘Force Majeure’. Östlund’s latest is a 2.5-hour epic about humiliation, the pomposity of the art world, the illusion of safety, miscommunication, and all the little social contracts we make that tear us apart.
The film is a meandering oddity that’s both brilliant and frustratingly vague. Sometimes, that’s the combo that art house hits are made of.
Claes Bang stars as Christian, the curator of a modern art museum, and he’s every bit as clueless and pretentious as that suggests. The movie opens with him being interviewed about his latest exhibit by a journalist played by Elisabeth Moss, and his rambling mess of an answer proves that the guy is a highly educated idiot. From there, Östlund spirals off into what essentially amounts to a series of sketch comedy diversions with politically astute purposes. They vary from an extended classist and classless attempt to get back a stolen cell phone, a hysterical negotiation over a used condom, a crowd of art fans politely respecting the presence of a man with Tourette Syndrome at a Q&A, and an exquisitely painful sequence involving a performance artist going too far at a cocktail party while the wealthy guests awkwardly stand by, unsure how to respond. It’s all over the place, but frequently just insightful and funny enough to be worth the wobbly ride.
There’s a lot going on in ‘The Square’. Östlund’s previous picture was a fairly focused satire on fragile masculinity and his latest tiptoes through that treadmill as well, while also finding time to skewer a variety of other topics. Obviously, the pompous modern art world and its barely interested patrons go through the wringer. As does class warfare, token acts of charity, the idiocy of viral marketing, the media’s love of scandal, and desperate attempts to seem politely inclusive by people who don’t understand how or why that’s important. The movie very much feels like a grand satire of everything bothering the filmmaker about society at this given moment. Although Östlund has some searing insights to impart, his lack of focus hurts the overall impact and leads to the wrong kind of seat squirming.
While ‘The Square’ can be hit-and-miss, the hits will undoubtedly rank amongst the best scenes of any film this year. (The performance art theater-silencer and awkward post-coital debate are particular highlights.) The film is beautifully shot and staged. The performances are pitch perfect, especially Bang’s perpetually clueless person of privilege. ‘The Square’ is a damn fine bit of filmmaking and confirms Ruben Östlund as one of the great contemporary directors and social satirists, even if Cannes overreacted slightly.