“The Square” Review: Ruben Östlund’s Thrilling New Film Refuses to Play By the Rules and Give Easy Answers

All of this is bullshit.

You know it. I know it. Everyone knows it. We tell ourselves it’s not true, but it is. Art is something I’ve chosen to make the focus of my life. I spend most of my time thinking about it, writing about it, ingesting it, or trying to create it. I take it very seriously, but every once in a long while, I take a step back and I admire just how silly all of it really is. I may have big emotional reactions to films, and they may impart ideas that become important to me, but it’s all just people playing dress-up in front of cameras. Elaborate games of make-believe. Whatever importance it has is importance we insist it has, and at least part of that is to justify why we spend so much time talking about it. My days are spent talking about things that were made by people to distract other people from the certain knowledge that most of the things that come with being people are so horrible that it’s hard to process. And while I consider that worthwhile, it’s worth asking the question: does any of it really matter?

It’s a question Christian (Claes Bang) doesn’t ask himself because he’s terrified of the answer. He runs the official modern art gallery in Denmark, occupying space in the actual royal palace, and it is, by any definition, a plum gig. Christian gets to immerse himself in the presentation of art, in making a space to showcase it, and in actively supporting the artists whose work he considers important. He’s made a life for himself that is based, at least in part, on the fact that he looks pretty good in a suit. He is vain, but works hard to present the image of someone who doesn’t care. It’s a great character, and Bang is terrific in the role. He gets to take Christian on a fairly wild ride over the course of the film, and part of what I love about The Square is that I had no idea, moment to moment, where the film was going.

Ruben Östlund’s last film, Force Majeure, was one of my favorites of the year when it came out — a smart and savage look at just how easily even the deepest bonds in our life can be stress-tested by the right set of circumstances. He’s interested in moments of human behavior where we reveal ourselves in ways we don’t intend to, and he is expert at making us squirm as we watch. This sort of thing is everywhere in our culture today. We even have a relatively new sub-genre we call “cringe comedy,” where the entire point is to make us so deeply uncomfortable that we end up laughing. You could put Östlund and his work on the same continuum as something like Curb Your Enthusiasm or Klown, but Östlund isn’t really looking for laughs. There are funny moments in his films, but what he’s trying to get at is the stuff that defines who we really are.

As Christian gears up for a major new exhibition, he is also faced with a million small decisions about the gallery, his life, and his overall ethical character. The new exhibit is about as benign as possible, a simple illuminated square in the middle of a large public space, with a very mildly-worded piece of text about how it’s a safe space for everyone. What spins out of that, though, is absolute chaos, and one of the major points that seems to run through everything is the very clear message that all of this is effort spent on the intangible, whether it’s a self-righteous sense of justice served, or the satisfaction that your art makes a “difference.”

At 2 1/2 hours, The Square has plenty of room to ramble, and that’s part of its charm. Early in the film, Christian is robbed via a very cleverly staged event, and he wants his wallet and phone back. When some of the younger members of his staff help him track the phone to a particular building, they come up with a plan to get the guilty party to return his goods. How that plan plays out leads to all sorts of weird unexpected moments for Christian, some good, some bad. It feels like The
Bonfire of the Vanities, where bad decisions create complicated webs that become impossible to shake. Most of Christian’s problems are of his own making. There’s an American journalist played by Elisabeth Moss, who interviews Christian in the film’s opening moments, and it’s a low-key scathing version of the way most junket interviews work. Moss keeps coming back and crossing paths with Christian, but there’s nothing simple about the way it all plays out. I love the completely unexplained detail of the chimpanzee that Moss apparently keeps in her apartment. There are moments where the film almost feels like it dips into pure surrealism, but Östlund is careful never to totally shake loose from reality.

One of my favorite things I’ve done as part of my work as a reporter was an interview with Terry Notary, a movement and performance specialist who works with the other actors who play apes for the new Planet of the Apes movies. He gave me arm extensions and asked me to use them, then declared that he would cast me as a silverback gorilla. The tips he gave me were all about behavior, and one of the reasons the Apes films are so good is that they treated the apes as actors, not special effects. Notary appears in the films as well, but until now, most audiences have never seen his face. His role in this film as an artist named Oleg is fascinating, and there’s one long set piece that deserves to be one of the most discussed scenes of the year. In many ways, the entire film comes down to that sequence. Is what Oleg does art? If so, what value does it have? Is this the kind of thing that Christian and his museum support? Is this what the museum’s patrons think they’re paying for? Should art make us comfortable? Or should it push us out of our comfort zone?

In a world that is grappling with turmoil on a scale that is only magnified by how connected we all are today, it’s hard to believe that our energies are best spent on making movies or TV shows or paintings or sculptures, and the fear that drives Christian through the entire film is the fear that it really is just plain bullshit. There’s an ad campaign designed to help sell the art exhibit to the public that turns into a dangerous political situation, and the only reason it ever gets that far is because Christian is distracted by his personal garbage. Watching him grapple with how free speech works and finding himself suddenly vilified after working so tirelessly to push art forward is a reminder that we are all one bad day away from being burnt to the ground by social media. Christian is pretty much the opposite of an enemy to free speech, but he finds himself in a position where there is no good option. It’s not the only lesson Christian learns about the responsibility of words, but it may be the harshest.

On a technical level, The Square is a gorgeous movie. I love Fredrik Wenzel’s photography, and the production design by Josefin Åsberg is as spot-on satirically accurate as the ridiculous ski resort in Force Majeure was. By the end of the film, Christian’s descent into moral compromise is complete, but there’s at least some sense that he may understand how he ends up where he does. Unlike Force Majeure, which could be fairly easily summed up, The Square feels like it defies any simple description.

This film is a thrilling accomplishment by an artist who is only getting better, and it raises major questions about whether “moral courage” in art is really courage at all, or if it’s all just one big human centipede of self-satisfaction as the Titanic sinks around us. The fact that Östlund refuses to give us answers to those questions is just part of why The Square is so good.

TB-TV-Grade-A

Rated:  R
Running time: 142 minutes

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Still quiet here.sas

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