At the start of Ruben Östlund’s The Square, arrogant Stockholm museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) is preparing to unveil a new installation pinned on a large neon square that the artist has placed in the concrete outside the museum. The Square “is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Three guesses as to what this movie is about. For the most part, Christian is a hypocritical, arrogant ass; he mistreats women and his subordinates, is immediately suspicious of the poor or the non-white, and is generally dismissive of anyone who can’t give him something he wants. He’s not the only one either: Anne (Elizabeth Moss), a journalist whom he casually sleeps with and then discards, and another artist, Julian (Dominic West), are both just as self-serving. What we see of the museum’s installations are an often hilarious but very on-the-nose parody of ineffectual conceptual art, like a bunch of piles of dirt sitting on the floor in an otherwise empty room that you aren’t allowed to take pictures in. Even the patrons are more interested in a buffet at an event than the work being feted or any of its ideas.
And so what you’ve got is a heavy-handed, sort of clumsy commentary on inclusive spaces, unexamined privilege, and performative allyship that’s about people who make and promote heavy-handed, sort of clumsy art about inclusive spaces, unexamined privilege, and performative allyship — rather than confronting their own hypocrisies. And that’s fine enough: The Square is often very funny, it gets a lot of mileage out of its alleged timeliness, and, despite lacking almost any ambiguity whatsoever, it’s quite sharp with its barbs. A centerpiece scene, in which an actor, Oleg (Terry Notary), acts like a very aggressive ape and antagonizes the crowd at a fundraising gala, escalates from simple discomfort to sheer terror just as you’ve decided you’ve got the point of the scene — a gambit the film pulls off more than once. The Square feels spontaneous even when it’s most absurdly schematic, and during the many scenes in which characters explain it all to you.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 5.