According to the old saying, a conservative is a liberal who got mugged. Alas, that cannot be the case for experimental art curator like Christian. It is his job to be hip, trendy, multicultural, and morally relativist. Business is booming for Christian, but the loss of his smart phone is seriously destabilizing. To hasten its return, he might just shred the remaining tatters of the social contract in Rune Östlund’s The Square (trailer here), Sweden’s official foreign language Oscar submission, which opens this Friday in New York.
The Swedish monarchy has finally been done away with once and for all. Stockholm Palace now triumphantly houses the X-Royal Museum of Art. Where once royalty tread now sits heaps of ash and other such provocative exhibits, but their upcoming conceptual installation will be a tough sell, even by their standards. The titular Square is a specially demarcated zone in the museum’s grand plaza, where everyone within must treat each other with respect and extend a helping hand to each other. The museum’s millennial online marketers find this concept boring, so they will craft something spectacularly lurid for the social media campaign. This will come back to bite everyone, but initially Christian is more concerned about the theft of his phone and wallet.
Somewhat ironically, Christian was pick-pocketed while he thought he was being a good Samaritan, protecting a random woman on the street from her supposedly abusive boyfriend. His ego was stoked in the moment, but clearly it was all a scam. However, Christian uses GPS to track his phone to a nearby low-income housing project. At the instigation of an immigrant security guard, the curator writes a threatening accusatory letter demanding his property be dropped off at a local convenience store, which he hand delivers to every mailbox in the building. This too will cause tremendous problems in the long run, but in the short run, it does indeed prompt the return of his stolen items.
Holy cats, if ever there was a cinematic statement that defied easy classification, it would be The Square. Frankly, the sum of its parts is greater than its whole—in spades. There are individual scenes that are already firmly ensconced in cinema history, yet they are almost entirely disconnected from the over-riding narrative. Östlund unleashes more biting social satire than the last five seasons of late night television combined in one soon-to-be notorious scene featuring Dominic West as a visiting artist, whose on-stage interview is repeatedly disrupted by a man with Tourette Syndrome. It is a real squirmer, precisely because Östlund directly challenges viewers to wonder what they might do in such a situation.
Then there is Terry Notary, an actor known for portraying simians for motion-capture special effects, playing a primate-inspired performance artist doing his act during the museum’s gala. He vividly and shockingly reveals how thin and fragile the boundary is between polite human behavior and animal savagery.
There is no question Östlund should have ended the film with Notary’s jaw-dropping turn, but the film just keeps going and going. In fact, this is rather a cheat, because Östlund basically wishes away the repercussions that surely should have resulted from Notary’s bedlam. Nevertheless, he spends an interminable amount of time in various stairwells playing out Christian’s final, small-ball moral dilemma in what must be one of the most egregiously anti-climactic third acts ever.
Still, there is no denying the sexually potent but wildly uncomfortable chemistry forged by Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss as Christian and Anne, the American journalist who interviews the curator and shares a hugely awkward one-stand with him. She also seems to be sharing a flat on roughly equal footing with a chimpanzee, which the understated Moss makes look almost natural.
Östlund skewers art world pretensions with laser-like accuracy and frequently undercuts hypocritical white liberal political correctness. Yet, Östlund is clearly so uncomfortable with the implications of his satire, he insists on imposing a lesson in compassion on poor emasculated Christian. That is a two-fold mistake, because it blunts the film’s acidic edge and further draws out the overlong narrative. Less would have been more, but the parts that work are unforgettable. The Square is recommended, warts and all, because there is stuff in there that is too good to miss when it opens this Friday (10/27) in New York, at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.