The Square, 2017.
Directed by Ruben Ostlund.
Starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, and Christopher Laesso.
A museum curator is preparing to launch a major art exhibition. He sees himself as having a social conscience, but when his wallet and phone are stolen, the other side of his character emerges and he badly mis-handles the situation – and does the same thing when it comes to promoting his new show.
A film from Ruben Ostlund isn’t going to be cozy. Compelling and fascinating, yes, but never easy and sometimes impenetrable. His previous offering, Force Majeure, was well received and won the Un Certain Regard prize at Cannes in 2014. His latest, The Square, went one step further and scooped the Palme D’Or last year.
Force Majeure centred on a spontaneously cowardly act by a father. This has another act from another father at its centre, but this time one that’s thought out. Badly. And it’s followed by a second one, which is equally ill-considered. The Square of the title is an art installation, the centrepiece of an exhibition supervised by museum curator Christian (Claes Bang). He’s a man under pressure, both professionally and domestically, but still believes he has a social conscience – until his wallet and phone are stolen. His reaction is extreme, a more accurate reflection of the real man, and he’s responsible for something equally rash when it comes to launching his beloved exhibition.
That’s putting it simply. Ostlund has a number of targets for what is, at times, a savage satire. At the heart of it is how those with money treat others – the homeless, the poor or those who are just not as wealthy. Society encourages tolerance and kindness, but it’s easier to ignore them. “Would you take a moment to save a life?” asks a charity worker and everybody who walks past her says no. Are they just saying no to her or to her actual question? Or both?
The art establishment, in the form of The Square installation, comes in for attack as well. It’s meant to represent a space where everybody is safe and responsible for each other – but that can apply to any space, from a circle to a pentagon. It’s nonsense. As are some of the other exhibits, especially one made up of conical piles of gravel. It’s no surprise that some are accidently vacuumed up by the cleaner. The exhibition’s marketing team is equally ridiculous, but also irresponsible in its creation of a promotional video of a little, impoverished girl. It goes viral and causes an outcry – all because Christian doesn’t take the time to think it through properly.
Much of this creates uncomfortable laughter, but lurking in the background in the museum is another installation featuring an ape like man, brought to life by a performance artist. His actual appearance at the exhibition launch is breath-stoppingly unsettling, as he lumbers around the room, aggressively whooping and pawing at the guests. The end of the scene is even more deeply disturbing. Yet again, the idea is mis-judged, with the guests initially alarmed and scared and then turning on the man in the most vicious of ways.
That scene marks a change in tone, but it’s also where the film starts to unravel. Christian delivers a speech, videoed on his phone, which essentially explains the plot. Except that, by that stage, the point is already clear, so it’s hardly necessary. His explanation of the marketing video to a packed press conference is equally superfluous and more than a little disingenuous. But Claes Bang holds both halves of the film together with the arrogant, flawed but not wholly unlikeable Christian, although talents like Dominic West and Elizabeth Moss are under-used and have only a handful of scenes apiece. Terry Notary, in that exhibition launch sequence delivers the piece of acting that sticks in your mind and, disturbing as it is, it’s powerfully excellent.
The Square doesn’t have the clarity of Force Majeure, but it does have the ability to grab the audience firmly by the shoulders for the duration. Given the complexity and occasional obscurity of the story, the film needs it. It isn’t always satisfying, but it is never less than compelling.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★★★ / Movie: ★★★
Freda Cooper. Follow me on Twitter.