The Square has quite the reputation to live up to. Not only is it director Ruben Ostlund’s followup to his spectacular, drily funny Force Majeure, it’s the 2017 winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or award. Either one of those descriptors would get me into a theatre. Expectations are high. And while The Square lacks the razor-sharp focus of Ostlund’s previous film, it confronts and discomforts its audience in a number of ways that stick in the mind long after leaving the cinema.
Taking place in the Stockholm art world, The Square revolves around art gallery curator Christian, who’s prepping to open the Stockholm Palace Gallery’s latest exhibition, "The Square." It’s an installation work with a lofty vision for the world: a literal square on the ground inside which everyone is equal and respectful of one another. Christian (Claes Bang) believes in that vision wholeheartedly - or at least, that’s what he tells himself and the public. But when his mobile phone and wallet get pickpocketed in the middle of a crowded town square, Christian’s worldview gets called into question and his life thrown into chaos, as he falls into a spiral of terrible, terrible decisions he’d never have made before. Or would he have?
The Square’s narrative is meandering and episodic, feeling almost like a feel-bad sketch comedy show than a traditional story. At two and a half hours, that emphasis on thematic exploration over narrative thrust makes the film a tiring effort to get through, but nearly all of the film’s many disparate pieces are memorable and entertaining on their own. Some are recurring threads - Christian’s crusade to retrieve his phone from his pickpocketer; a PR nightmare spurred by a poorly thought-out viral advertisement; a would-be no-strings relationship with a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) - while others are one-off setpieces. In one, Planet of the Apes and Kong: Skull Island’s Terry Notary stuns a high-class dinner party with a performance as an ape. In another, a visiting artist (Dominic West) struggles to keep a lid on a Q&A session that keeps getting interrupted by an attendee with Tourette’s. Constantly, Christian is put in positions where his normally silver tongue can’t quite articulate (or believe in) the flowing, utopian prose he usually spouts about art.
If The Square is a comedy - and while it totally is, it’s entirely possible to have different reads on that - it’s one of discomfort. The sprawling, pan-European (and American) cast does terrific work within Ostlund’s cold, isolating frames, deadpanning their dialogue and creating uncomfortable physicality. Technology is presented as a crushing weight on Christian’s personal and professional woes; truly, the internet is the driver of all modern insecurities.
Each and every scene is transparently designed to push Christian (and the audience) to abandon or reassess his progressive, tolerant worldview. Like an intentionally confrontational art exhibition, The Square’s central question is pretty basic, when you get down to it: how much does it take to strip away a supposedly open-minded modern citizen’s social decency? Ostlund explores that question with more deftness and intelligence than, say, South Park does, but it’s not a particularly original question to ask.
It’s good to be challenged. Art should be challenging. The Square certainly agrees, both through its confrontational nature and its justified jabs at bullshit artistic platitudes. But there’s a smug superiority to the way Ostlund puts Christian - and the audience - through the wringer. “Aren’t we all just animals,” he asks rhetorically, his unnecessary answer already prepped and ready to go. Ostlund is an expert at skewering dysfunctional human behaviour, especially fragile masculinity, and The Square certainly accomplishes that. But its sawn-off shotgun approach to its social satire, aimed at everything from public relations to class entitlement to romance to the purpose of art, results in kind of a hodgepodge of ideas.
Those ideas do stick in the mind, though - more than most art exhibitions I’ve seen. So maybe Ostlund’s on to something.