Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund proved himself a force to reckon with, especially with 2014’s Force Majeure, a dark comedy about a family’s trial by fire after an avalanche. The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, is a bit too all over the place to match that gem’s visceral impact, but this being Ostlund, there are many and various pleasures to be found. The Square is a satire of the art world where pretension, elitism, greed and crass stupidity hold sway. Think of the Marx brothers playing tour guides in a farce and you’ll get an inkling of what’s ahead.
Claes Bang is altogether wonderful as Christian, the handsome curator of the X-Royal Museum who thinks he’s on the cutting edge by showcasing The Square, a empty space in the middle of the museum courtyard where patrons can enter into a metaphorical haven of humanitarian values. There’s that, and there’s also the circus Ostlund orchestrates around this alleged “sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Unfortunately, Christian himself isn’t feeling much connected to his fellow humans these days, having being robbed of his phone and wallet in a public square. He traces the thief to an apartment building, and leaves notes in every mailbox demanding the return of his property.
The script trots out a series of vignettes that disproves everything art project is meant to represent. Take Christian’s one-nighter with Anne (Elisabeth Moss, perfect as always), an American journalist who interviews him, takes him home to her apartment (she lives with a chimp who does her own lipstick). After sex, the lovers fight over a used condom. The suspicious Christian believes Anne might want his sperm to get herself pregnant.
More incidents pile up to show Christian’s lack of compassion. At a museum panel discussion, Christian is appalled by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who rudely and raunchily interrupts. He wages war with a child who deeply resents the letter Christian put in his mailing accusing him of robbery. There’s no warm connection for Christian, not even from his two daughters, who mostly ignore him.
The film culminates at a museum dinner party filled with rich patrons meant to be entertained by a bare-chested man who romps around them like an ape. Then the man’s behavior changes from amusing to aggressive. The guests fear for their lives and run amok. Terry Notary, a stuntman and motion-capture artist, plays the role with such fierce comic brilliance that he becomes his own art exhibit about man’s cruelty to man. Which is the point, of course. Ostlund takes nearly two-and-a-half hours to tell his slapstick tragedy about the fragility of everything we call human. His film is frustratingly hit-and-miss. But when Ostlund hits his target, the wallop will knock the wind out of you. In The Square, it always hurts when you laugh.