Through the eyes of a satirist, the world of contemporary art museums is what one might call a “target-rich environment.” Pretense, hypocrisy, decadence—they’re all there, just waiting to be mocked. And the mercilessly acerbic Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund, whose Force Majeure was one of the sharpest critiques of matrimony and masculinity in recent memory, would seem to be just the person to do it.
But if that were all Östlund’s new film, The Square, aspired to, it would be almost too easy. Who can’t see the absurdity in exhibitions comprised of symmetrically placed piles of gravel, or in the superficial nihilism of marketing another installation by depicting the explosion of a toddler? And who wouldn’t indulge in the schadenfreude of seeing a competent, confident curator (Claes Bang) reduced to digging through a trash heap after being subjected to a Scandinavian version of The Bonfire of the Vanities?
Östlund is working at something more basic and profound than mere satire, though: He’s exploring questions about human society and critiquing the cult of individualism. And he does so in smart and entertaining fashion, at least until a drawn-out final act turns The Square from a sharp-tongued takedown into an example of the kind of high-minded narcissism it decries.
Östlund is working at something more basic and profound than mere satire, though: He’s exploring questions about human society and critiquing the cult of individualism.
Danish actor Bang is stellar as Christian (the name just might be ironic), the head curator of Stockholm’s X-Royal Museum of modern and contemporary art. His ordered existence is disrupted when a tag-team, broad-daylight mugging leaves him without his wallet and phone; while he enlists the help of a co-worker in a scheme to ferret out the thieves, he ends up casting too wide a net. His plan works, but there are, naturally, unforeseen consequences.
Meanwhile, Christian is overseeing the installation of a new piece: a simple square, maybe four feet on each side, outlined on the gallery floor and accompanied by a sign that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within its boundaries we all share equal rights and obligations.” (Östlund and collaborator Kalle Boman, who produced Force Majeure, installed just such a work in a Swedish art museum in 2014.) Christian also has a dalliance with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss, excellent but underused) and shepherds an enigmatic visiting artist (Dominic West, also excellent and also underused).
The Square is full of memorable individual scenes. In one, a spectator with Tourette’s disrupts an onstage artist interview, testing the tolerance of other audience members. In another, a shirtless artist descends upon a black-tie donor event, taunting the passive, civilized attendees with aggressive, grunting, simian behavior. What separates us from the animals? Not much, it seems.
Östlund’s pessimistic view of human nature extends to the way his supposedly enlightened and sophisticated characters view the desperate souls who occupy their periphery. In the movie’s early scenes, beggars repeatedly plead with passersby: “Do you want to save one human life?” Later, the museum’s hipster marketing duo promotes “The Square” with a tasteless online ad that asks, “How much inhumanity will it take before you access your humanity?”
Bits like those expose the degree to which Östlund’s reach exceeds even his impressive grasp, and The Square ultimately crumbles under its own self-importance. The final 20 minutes or so are tedious and repetitive enough to tarnish a good share of the brilliance that comes before. There’s enough left over to make The Square more worthwhile than the world it takes down, but not by much.