Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Ruben Ostlund
Stars: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary.
Christian (played by Danish actor Claes Bang, from tv series like Borgen, The Bridge, etc) is the respected curator of the fictitious Stockholm X-Royal Museum. He is planning an ambitious installation project based around the theme of altruism and human boundaries. The centrepiece of the installation is the creation of a square in the courtyard of the museum, which supposed to be a lofty symbol meant to represent the social contact, a sanctuary of trust and caring, and a place of harmony for all. His eager PR team convince him that he needs something splashy to help promote a rather dry-sounding exhibition.
But a series of unfortunate events means that Christian is about to have a really bad week that will turn his life upside down. His wallet and mobile phone are stolen in an elaborate street scam. His plan to find the thieves and exact revenge on them though has unintended consequences. And a video promotion for the installation goes viral for all the wrong reasons, and Christian loses his position.
Elisabeth Moss (from The Handmaid’s Tale, etc) plays Anne, an obsessive American journalist who asks some difficult questions of Christian at a press conference and who ends up sleeping with him. The emotional fall out also shakes Christian out of his complacency. Dominic West contributes a cameo as a hipster artist named Julian (a sly dig at Julian Schnabel), who participates in a farcical Q&A session that is uncomfortably interrupted by a man with Tourette’s Syndrome.
The latest film from Swedish director Ruben Ostlund (2014’s Force Majeure, etc), The Square is a sharp and surreal and subversive take on the emptiness of modern culture, art and pretentious artists, the creative process, the media, privilege, social class, hypocrisy and politics, guilt, and political correctness. Although set in Sweden, these themes have a universal quality. The Square won the Palme d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 and is Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
But this sprawling, oblique, challenging and confounding film is less successful and accessible than his Force Majeure, and is likely to polarise audiences. This is a film of ideas and an exploration of the heartless nature of contemporary society. Ostlund weaves a number of themes and narrative strands through the bloated and torturously long 145-minute film, and a lot of the material could have been left on the editing room floor. Some of these strands are more successful than others. Ostlund allows some of his ideas to bounce around without direction and the film often loses focus. Ostlund eschews a straightforward narrative structure, giving the has an almost episodic structure. The film itself is often downbeat in tone but leavened with a strong streak of black humour that will not be to everyone’s taste.
The Square is a dense drama that explores the darker side of humanity and the base nature of humanity, and, like misanthropic filmmaker Michael Haneke, Ostlund deliberately sets out to make us squirm with his world view. Motion capture performer Terry Notary (best known for his work in the rebooted Planet Of The Apes trilogy) plays Oleg, who gives us a confronting piece of performance art at a lavish dinner gathering that quickly gets out of control.
The film has been beautifully shot by cinematographer Fredrick Wenzel (Force Majeure, etc), who uses long takes and a static camera to capture the drama. And he often leaves the camera aimed at a scene and holds the shot rather than cut away when it is clearly finished.
Like a lot of previous films that have won the top prize at Cannes, The Square is an obscure film that may appeal to the art house crowd but will leave most audiences bemused and confused.