Ruben Östlund’s The Square won this year’s Palme d’or, and while his dry sense of humor and penchant for the absurd might confound many, I found this descent into the examination of the art world to be an engaging one.
Christian is the curator of a prestigious art gallery in Stockholm and he and his team are trying to launch a new exhibit, The Square, but in between all of that drama we are witness to Christian’s many other dealings in his life. He has exhibits to open, a wallet and cell phone to recover, women to conquer and fires to put out less the museum has a PR nightmare on their hands. Christian is ultimately a coward, exposed as much many times over here, but there is a bit of good in him, trying to get out. Whether he is successful at that or not, isn’t really the point, in fact, I’m not sure I know what the point of any of this, but it will certainly provoke a conversation if you see it with a friend or two.
Östlund’s film is full of amazing sequences, challenging the viewer and entertaining all at once, but I do wish it all felt a bit more coherent as a whole. Obviously, the world isn’t a series of clean and neat outcomes, but things feel just a bit too random for their own good; especially given the film being grounded in a consistent reality. A sequence late in the film, where we watch a performance art piece get pushed to the edge is totally palpable and believable as an example of a great artist seizing control of a room. There is also a sex scene in the middle of the film that had me laughing and might be one of the most unsexy depictions ever put on film, the sequence is hilarious though, and speaks to Östlund’s constant desire to subvert the viewer’s expectations. The reveal of the antagonist of the film’s second half is particularly brilliant, just rubbing Christian’s lack of a spine in his face.
The film’s sense of humor is what keeps it so compelling, but you have to know that Östlund’s vision isn’t for everyone. It’s about as deadpan as it can get on most occasions, unless it is an overt sight gag he drops into the picture. His camera work/editing does so much for the film’s sense of humor too, whether it is what we are seeing when, or often what we aren’t, he deftly builds up the jokes throughout; even delivering a punchline or two before we know it is even supposed to be funny.
Claes Bang stars as Christian and he does a wonderful job of being a directorial cipher. It feels like Östlund is speaking through Bang, trying to come to terms with his thoughts about art, society and culture in general, and Bang handles the part extremely well. Christian has a number of epiphanies over the course of the film, and Bang’s face just does an amazing job of capturing Christian’s often worried face all the way through to the eventual relief. Elisabeth Moss pops up for a trio of sequences and she is quite the foil to Bang’s Christian. Her character comes across as a bit reductive of a female type, but I have to think this is quite intentional and part of the humor. Yeah, she’s kind of crazy, but it also plays so well into making Christian squirm, it is worth it for me. Terry Notary also deserves special mention for the one and only sequence he has in the film. He’s on the poster, and that spot is well-earned as the sequence where he works the room for an art performance is probably the best sequence of the film. I was enraptured by him, and lets hope he get more non-motion captured roles in the future, the guy is pure charisma.
Östlund’s The Square isn’t for everyone, but it will compel anyone who can give themselves over to his odd sense of humor and tone. Claes Bang is truly great in the lead role and Östlund will surely surprise you more than a handful of times while watching this film. Give The Square a chance, you might find you like what’s inside.