Co-authored by Joshua Beanland
Ruben Östlund’s latest film is set in a bizarre alternative version of Stockholm, where, after the abolition of the Swedish monarchy, the Royal Palace has been converted into the respected but slightly pretentious contemporary art gallery “X-Royal”. It’s a funny detail that doesn’t have much bearing on the story but acts as a gateway into the strange but poignant view of our world which Östlund presents us within The Square.
As the follow up to his masterful Force Majeure, also the surprise winner of this year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Square has high expectations which it more than meets. The film follows the gallery’s curator Christian (Claes Bang) as he prepares to open a new exhibition, “The Square”. Christian has socially conscious ideals: he drives an electric car, he gives money to the homeless, he’s a divorced father of two with a good opinion of himself. After getting his phone and wallet stolen, and his drunken and idiotic attempt to recover them backfires, things start to crumble, while his PR team plans a tasteless advertising campaign for “The Square”, he finds himself overwhelmed by personal and public crises.
The film starts as a satire on contemporary art and society, more than earning its place with laughs. Spare moments in the film show the public wandering through the museum like bored children on a school trip, while pretending to get what it’s all about, but only poking their heads into exhibitions before being scared off by the gallery attendant’s aggressive stare. The Square is consistently funny, filled with awkward humor that’s always satisfying. Its comedy owes a great deal to cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel (returning from Force Majeure), he works closely with Östlund to shoot each scene with a relentless intimacy and a static frame that almost forces the characters to be more uncomfortable.
Östlund however, is best living on the line between awkwardness and fear. Christian eventually has to try harder to keep his life under control, before he gets confronted by his vanity and lack of empathy, and the film challenges him to act on it. Though The Square is most brilliant when it finally turns around and confronts the viewer with the same questions. Cllimaxing with the performance-artist (Terry Notary) terrorizing a group of dinner guests in one of the most unsettling bits of cinema I’ve seen all year.
The Square easily justifies its 105-minute runtime, and there’s a lot going on. While I don’t feel like each strand of the story comes together in perfect cohesion, Östlund is in top form with this quite absurd and jaw-dropping film it as entertaining, as it is existential.