‘The Square’ Mercilessly Sends Up A Self-Satisfied, Familiar World

The scene everyone will be talking about in Ruben Östlund’s The Square arrives relatively late. Guests at a black-tie gala for a Swedish modern art museum situated in part of the now apparently decommissioned Stockholm Palace are treated to a special appearance by a performance artist named Oleg who, they’re informed, will be portraying an animal. The guests are cautioned that any reaction risks provoking the beast shortly before Oleg strides in the room. He’s played by Terry Notary, a movement coach and motion capture performer whose resumé includes the recent Planet of the Apes films and Kong: Skull Island, where he played Kong. Oleg’s performance is essentially that of one of Notary’s screen apes stripped of digital dressing and let loose in the real world. He taunts the guests and mounts a table, to the accompaniment of nervous titters. Then he goes a step too far. Then he goes even further. Oleg’s act is blackly entertaining then, uncomfortable, then so dangerously beyond the pale that the audience has no choice but to turn on him or risk never being able to live with themselves.

The Square never makes it to that third step, but Östlund’s latest spends a lot of time walking the line between the first two. It’s an unsparing satire that uses its art world setting as another chance for the director of the terrific Force Majeure look at the hypocrisies and failings of a seemingly put-together man who, at heart, has no idea what he’s doing and whose callous, craven tendencies and unadmitted prejudices are closer to the surface than he’d care to admit.

Here that’s Christian (Claes Bang), a handsome, well-meaning (more or less), and kind of vacant curator at the X-Royal Museum who’s challenged with breaking through the noise of modern life and drawing attention to the work championed by his institution. Specifically, he wants to make a big push for “The Square,” an idealistic (or is it just inane?) installation that carves out a 4×4 space in which all who visit must abide by the instructions posted nearby: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.”

It’s a noble sentiment, but as Christian’s daily routine establishes, nobility can be a tough virtue to appeal to — and sometimes with good reason. On the way to the museum, he passes by the homeless and a woman asking, “Do you want to save a human life?” as if he doesn’t see either. When he hears someone calling for help, he does stop, listen, and attempt to intervene on her behalf only to discover it’s all been an elaborate set-up to steal his wallet and phone. Is it better to be an insensitive jerk or a virtuous dupe?

The film never answers that question because Christian is a bit of both, and it’s Östlund’s eagerness to show both sides of his personality and Bang’s deft performance that give its satire an extra dimension. The humanity behind The Square‘s jabs save it from seeming nihilistic but they also implicate everyone watching. The film seems less nasty for having such a well-developed protagonist, but also that much more squirm-inducing for anyone who recognizes a bit too much of themselves in Christian’s unexamined attitudes.

There’s a grand design to The Square — which won the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes — even if it sometimes seems to have been built from the vignette out. Memorable set pieces include Christian’s attempts to retrieve his stolen goods (which yield results but quickly spin out of control and make him look racist), an awkward night with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss, in a just-this-side-of-crazed performance) who inexplicably shares quarters with a bonobo, and a Q&A with a visiting artist (Dominic West) interrupted by an attendee with Tourette syndrome.

The lattermost benefits, like the rest of the film, from Östlund’s superb sense of timing and willingness to let awkwardness drive a scene. But it’s also the film’s weakest moment, the one that finds The Square punching down when it’s much better at looking around and punching sideways, letting chaos loose in a staid, self-satisfied world but then sticking around to watch as its characters try to pick up the pieces, ponder their mistakes, then repeat and compound them. It runs nearly two and a half hours, but the length feels necessary. It’s a satire keeps the camera rolling after the punchline to allow time for the full, uncomfortable implication of the joke to settle.

The Square opens in limited release in Los Angeles and New York on October 27th before expanding.