The Square, the social satire from Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund is one of the most ambitious movies of the year. Often LOL funny, and just as often uncomfortable, The Square hits moments of triumph that would constitute a great movie if they were braided together more cohesively.
The Square is set in a world that is ripe for mockery – Christian (Claes Bang) is chief curator at a Stockholm museum of modern art. The museum is funded by the very rich, and the art is impenetrably pretentious, inaccessible to all but those predisposed to deconstruct it (or at least pretend to). One installation is described in straight-faced mumbo jumbo as “relational aesthetics”. Another is a roomful of conical piles of rubble, with a museum guard rebuking visitors with a stern “no pictures!”.
Christian is comfortable in his privilege, but he is curious about exploring social inequity – but only as an intellectual exercise. Christian is interested in street beggars (and finds one especially ungrateful one), and The Square is filled by “help me” moments. He is victimized by a robbery that seems like performance art, and sets off on an adventure called the “Tesla of Justice”, which goes horribly awry.
There are lots of laughs in The Square. Christian admonishes a colleague not to use Comic Sans font in a threat letter. There’s a very funny tug of war in a post-coital spat. A self-congratulatory on-stage interview with a precious artist wearing a blazer over pajamas, is disrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s who ejaculates “cock godammit” and the like, all while the audience pretends it’s all ok. And there’s a riotous thread with PR guys making a BS pitch that results in the very most counter-productive promotional video (think Springtime for Hitler in The Producers).
Östlund is very gifted at finding the humor in interruptions. The most serious, intimate and formal discussions are interrupted by a baby crying, construction noise and lots of cell phones ringing.
And, finally, there is a museum opening gala with a “welcome to the jungle” theme. This segment of The Square could stand alone as a sort film and probably win an Oscar. (Again, completely universal terror is interrupted by a ringing cell phone.) But, it’s unclear how this fits inside The Square’s themes.
The Square is very well-acted. Claes Bang is exceptional as Christian, exuding the ennui of Marcello Mastroianni in 8 1/2, Gabriele Ferzetti in L’Avventura and David Hemmings in Blow-up.
As an American journalist, Elisabeth Moss (who is always excellent) gets to show us her playful side, which is a treat; there’s a wonderful Moss moment when her eyes tell us she’s made a decision about her sex life while in the restroom line.
The most stunning performance is by Terry Notary as the performance artist at the gala. Notary, a stunt coordinator, choreographer and movement coach, is a master of motion capture, and his work has been featured in the Planet of the Apes and The Hobbit franchises and Andy Serkis’ Jungle Book. It’s one thing to imitate an ape, but Notary’s performance in The Square plays off of and dominates a banquet room full of other actors. It’s a really singular performance.
I loved Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure, which made my list of Best Movies of 2014
Force Majeure was Sweden’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Oscar. It is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon, iTunes, Vudu and Xbox Video. Force Majeure was a satirical drama with some very funny moments; The Square is a satirical comedy with some very serious themes.
The Square is a movie that my head liked a lot, but it didn’t thrill my heart. Filled with brilliant moments, it just doesn’t hold together as one cohesive great movie.
[SPOILER: At the end, Christian tries to be genuinely helpful by making amends – but he is proven ultimately and ironically helpless.]