The Square (2017)

2017 | rated R | starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Moss | directed by Ruben Ostlund | 2hrs 22mins |

Studio Pitch: A satire of the modern art crowd following a museum curator dealing with his own issues at work and at home.

In May of this year, the modern art world got a social media roasting when some college student pranksters left a pineapple in a display case in the art exhibit at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland and the fruit stayed there blending in with the rest of the post-modern art for a week while passing art fans and media members contemplated it’s beauty and deconstructed it’s significance. There is no better lead-in to Ruben Ostlund’s The Square than that. Square slyly deconstructs the post-modern art business in the age where social media count views competes with aristocratic prestige and pretention to be the dominant currency for how art is judged.  It would make a worthy companion piece to Banky’s street art documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop – and that is a huge compliment. 

The story follows Christian (Claes Bang), an art curator for the fictional X-Royal modern art museum in Stockholm, Sweeden over a few days as he prepares to open a new exhibit called “The Square”. When we last left Ostlund he was observing guilt, cowardess and male disposability in a family on the brink of collapse in the terrific Force Majeure. The Square is an equally quiet and leisurely paced film, but a bit more ambitious and unwieldy. It flows, breezily and naturally from one intrusion after another: Christian’s wallet is stolen, his committee works with a social media PR group to promote the exhibit, he deals with his two young girls and people pass in and out of his and the museum’s space including an art reporter (Elizabeth Moss, stealing the show with her expressions) and Dominic West (as a vein artist not unlike his character on The Affair). None of the events are particularly urgent, but escalate based on Christian’s poor decisions and responses to them.

By themselves a satire of modern art is shooting fish in a barrel and a morality tale of a man who complicates his life with arrogance, elitism and ignorance are neither particularly groundbreaking stories, but Ostlund’s screenplay finds it’s voice with the interplay between them. The movie has it’s outrageous moments of purely absurd Brunel-esque upper-class satire but Ostlund keeps a light touch, rather to observe than to get into a satirical arms race with modern art critics over who can rip apart post-modernism the darkest and most brutal. He would rather entertain than lecture us. The Square is literally a lit square chiseled in the ground where participants are offered to stand inside and not face the inequality and prejudice of the outside world. It goes into the museum alongside exhibits that include rows of piled up concrete dust and a wall-sized video of a man grunting like an ape – both of which Ostlund checks back in with periodically as if they are characters with their own story arcs. It builds a world around Christian that insulates him from reality and consequences, then forces him into increasing run-ins with people outside of that world. Sweeden’s homeless population seems to increase around him and encroach on his world as the movie goes on.

Go for the modern art critique, but stay for the character bits. That’s where The Square truly flourishes. Ostlund’s script is terrific, elevating the film above what it’s subject appears to be on paper. He shows a keen ear for dialog and conversation, winning me over early with a drunken late night plot by Christian and his co-worker to get revenge on the wallet thief that escalates in absurdity. Every set piece Ostlund indulges in here goes on a bit longer than it would in someone else’s hands, but to great effect, stretched to the point of discomfort and building to moments that find unexpected outs instead of running in circles. The centerpiece of the film becomes a scene where tuxedo-wearing upper-class patrons sit down for a fancy dinner and a show only to be willingly shamed and outright terrorized by the performance artist. It is both ridiculous and a feat of committed filmmaking.

The movie is self-aware enough to subvert it’s tropes. Christian is set up as the womanizer cliché who gets women into bed and then gets confronted on not remembering their names – then that gets turned on it’s head. When he reluctantly offers to help one of the “beggars”, the homeless show a level of selfish demanding that mirrors the Christian’s own selfishness.

The first half of the film is excellent. It’s so good that it keeps the 2nd half held up even when it starts to drift toward the more conventional. When Christian’s daughters show up and he starts playing the role of family man, the movie starts showing its hand a bit. Will his encounter with a neighborhood kid redeem him or will he retreat to self-indulgence? The movie seems to think we care in the final minutes after spending 2 hours making it’s lead the cause of his own problems and a symptom of a hypocritical do-gooder PC culture at large. The Square runs long at 2 and a half hours and for most of it’s running time I was totally find with watching it all day. That started to wane as the third act started to stretch and I was ready for it to wrap up about 10 minutes before it does. Still, it never gets lost and there are just too many morsel of gold in here. The performances, the invention of the exhibits, the tone, the immersive world-building and a pretty terrific script. It’s visual style is static, cold, European and perfectly fits the film.

It’s an immensely entertaining and often hilarious film, grounded in bursts of weirdness and outrageousness, but doesn’t fly off into absurdity. If you’re up for some real nerve-shredding, iconoclastic, world-burning satire The Killing of a Sacred Deer will be the movie to see. While less mold-breaking, The Square carves out it’s place, mocking the well worn subjects of art-and-commerce, the self-destructive upper class and social media pandering all from a fresh, precise and adult perspective that focuses on character observation instead if provocative bits. It’s a rich banquet of food-for-thought that will give the audience a lot to chew on. It’s weird but not for weirdness sake. The Square is a signature screen statement for Ostlund, shifting him from “the guy who directed Force Majeure” to “the guy who directed The Square” too.

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