While Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s previous film, the incredible Force Majeure (Force Majeure asks men to confront manliness in stark but droll narrative — a film review), picked on just one aspect of the fortunate class, his latest, The Square, takes on so much more. The Palme d’Or winner is a sweeping critique of the art world, the privileged class that dwells in it and beyond. The tentacles of money, sex and family are all ridiculed through the lens of that most elevated of media: contemporary art. It’s a bit sprawling, and even though it lacks the impressive laser focus of Force Majeure, it’s no less entertaining to watch as the director of a contemporary art museum, Christian (Claes Bang), fumbles through his life and and circumstances.
It kicks off with Christian looking to track down his stolen wallet and cellphone with the help of the “find your phone” app. A sense of the double irony of this movie becomes clear when Christian’s assistant, Michael (Christopher Læssø), suggests a soundtrack to their adventure: “Genesis” by Justice. As the bold, electronic music by the French duo builds, Michael exuberantly calls the scene of these guys following the ping of the cell phone to an underprivileged housing development in a Tesla with a group called Justice as their soundtrack a paradox. Then Christian corrects him, “That’s not a fucking paradox.”
As silly as he is portrayed, Christian is a surrogate for the audience, reflecting back irony while being a more real representation of the audience that they might dare admit. He is both the butt of the joke and garners sympathy as he goes on to suffer the consequences of a casual hook-up with simpleton arts writer/groupie Anne (Elisabeth Moss), ineptly manages his two spoiled young daughters and deals with fallout from a tasteless marketing campaign for a new exhibit called “The Square” that he failed to give his full attention to.
Much in this movie is high-pitched. During his drunken hookup with Anne, her wide-eyed, sweat-drenched face becomes a thing of repulsion for Christian, even though he orgasms. In the afterglow, he guards the contents of his prophylactic with paranoid dread. Later, we gain a bit of insight into this fear when we meet the man’s young daughters, who bicker among themselves constantly and only seem satiated when Dad takes them on a shopping spree. But they only truly calm down or — better put — freeze, when their father is confronted by something fearsome: a young Arab boy who follows them home to yell at Christian that he apologize for his false accusations that he is a thief. The blame is fallout from a knuckle-headed plan by Christian’s assistant to leave threatening letters at all the apartments in a building that the “find your phone” app led them to.
Class privilege is clearly Östlund’s target here, and that also goes for the intellectual circle. It is mocked through art, from piles of dust neatly lined up in a gallery across a neon sign declaring “YOU HAVE NOTHING” that has a rather comical off-screen demise to a creaky, noisy sculpture of stacked chairs that threatens to drown out a confrontation between Anne and Christian. Then there’s a centerpiece performance by Terry Notary, known for his animalistic motion-capture work as a choreographer and actor in films like Planet of the Apes. He plays Oleg, a performance artist based on Oleg Kulik who put himself on display as a dog in a Stockholm art gallery in 1996 chained next to a sign that stated “dangerous.” Those who got to close were attacked, including a man who Kulik actually bit. When Oleg stalks into a bourgeois sit-down fundraising dinner shirtless on all fours using spring-loaded crutches attached to his arms, he exerts his authority as a gorilla would in the wild. It makes for a scene that plays with the edge of fear and darkness in what should be an absurdist situation. The scene neatly encapsulates the blending of dread and reality for those who think they have found the posh life but have only really found a way to disconnect from the real and most basic issues that make us all human.
Though the target seems to be the wealthy, The Square truly lets no one in Western culture off the hook, from the stupidity of thinking you are doing something in the real world with the click of a mouse to that fleeting feeling of “outrage” you feel at seeing something on the screen of your mobile phone that might offend your sense of political correctness or, God-forbid, trigger a personal trauma. It all matters little when protected by the filter of unreality, be it representation in symbols like art or “social media,” which does more to separate people than really bring them together.
The Square runs 142 minutes and is rated R. It opens in our Miami area on Friday, Nov. 10 at MDC’s Tower Theater and the Miami Beach Cinematheque. On Nov. 22, in Broward County, it opens at the Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit the movie’s official website. This is an extended review for a movie I first caught as a guest at Miami Film Festival GEMS 2017, last month (Miami Film Festival GEMS 2017 premieres 5 films coming soon).