Cannes 2017 Review: THE SQUARE Is A Masterclass In Anxiety

Ruben Östlund’s take on the art world is a triumph.

There’s nothing more tedious than a film aiming at philosophical complexity that misses its mark. It’s easier to aim lower, to dumb down the ideas, to give a smattering of notions that make the work seem smarter than it really is. Yet there’s equally nothing more thrilling than when a work manages to be intellectually provocative and immensely entertaining, a rare hybrid indeed.

The Square is such a work, a magnificent piece of filmmaking that manages to be as broadly comic as it is morally sophisticated. The story is one of ironic pretentions and deeply realized ruminations on personal ethics, tackling within a highly accessible film profound questions about the limits of art, the effect of our moral decisions and how one should be a bit more choosey sometimes about who one sleeps with.

While Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure has moments of majesty, it’s an often dour piece, over serious as it explores alienation. The Square is even richer in how it balances these introspective moments with broad levity, a balancing act that’s performed with astonishing dexterity.

Take a scene with Terry Notary, a movement specialist who helped bring the Dwarves of The Hobbit and the creatures of Avatar to life on the mocap stage. In an unforgettable scene he becomes an art piece himself, interrupting a stuffy museum dinner with a performance piece showcasing his simian capacities honed on the Planet of the Apes series. It’s a primal moment, dancing between broad physical comedy and genuine terror. Formally, it’s a true piece of art within the context of the film highlighted by the discomfort of both the on and offscreen audience. This is a scene that works as dramatic and physical action just as it probes deeply into the thematic elements of the script, one of the many times this synergy is pulled off.

Elizabeth Moss is as luminous as ever in another trademark quirky role, and Dominic West’s appearance while small is also effective. Yet it’s on the shoulders of Museum Director Christian (Claes Bang) that the film rests, and his almost Keaton-esque physicality, chiseled looks and sympathetic air allows for even the broadest of moments to feel utterly convincing.

The titular square refers ostensibly to an art project where within the frame one is meant to be freed of expectation, a kind of highfalutin virtual saferoom where one is meant to reflect upon their own situation and to answer any question with honesty. While sarcastically posited, the idea behind it is reflected in the film itself, where the work opens up its own spaces for discussion, where ideas about personal property, personal space and personal responsibilities all collide. It’s a delightful case of having the cake and eating it too, a completely convincing piss take on contemporary art that through subtlety and subversion managed to be itself an exemplar.

There’s a wonderfully choreographed dance at play with Östlund’s script, gliding between different tones and different ideas with gentle steps, yet at any given moment you’re not sure whether the footing will slip. It’s this anxiety that fuels the film’s narrative, a neurosis that’s intoxicating and serves as the central generator of much of the film’s hilarity. This is realistic surrealism, something that feels documentary-like yet fueled by the preposterousness of life. 

The Square is a delight, a masterclass in anxiousness and discomfort pitted towards intellectual exploration. This is a triumphant achievement by Östlund, a film as smart as it is funny, as moving as it is entertaining.