Review: 'The Square'

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Why Does Art Hate Me? I Never Did Anything to Art!

2017 / Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark / Dir. by Ruben Östlund / Opens in select theaters on October 27, 2017; locally on November 17, 2017

by:
Andrew Wyatt

Viewers who have experienced the delectable agony of director Ruben Östlund’s international breakout Force Majeure (2014) doubtlessly have some expectations regarding the Swedish filmmaker’s new feature, The Square. Those expectations will largely be fulfilled: Like his previous film, the director’s latest work is a pitch-black satire presented completely straight, with a whiff of self-loathing detectable beneath its Scandinavian starch. Both Force Majeure and The Square are bone-dry cringe comedies about self-satisfied bourgeois men. In both films, the protagonist is swiftly and thoroughly dismantled by a volatile mixture of happenstance and their own wretched failings.

However, Östlund’s preceding film slyly employed a constrained setting—a nuclear family’s holiday at a luxury ski resort—that reflected the feature’s relatively narrow focus on patriarch Tomas’ crumpling cowardice and inadequacy. In contrast, the Palm d’Or-winning The Square veritably sprawls. Set in Stockholm, with much of its action centered on an esteemed contemporary art museum, the new film follows the travails of Christian (Claes Bang), the institution’s preening, middle-aged chief curator. His narcissistic dickishness receives a healthy share of The Square’s barbs, but the general absurdities of the art world are also subjected to profuse skewering. More broadly, the film takes aim at the grating self-regard of the politically Leftish well-to-do, and at the inanities of modern, globalized European society. The feature suffers somewhat due to this expansiveness, lacking the ruthless intensity that made Force Majeure such an enthralling experience. Nonetheless, The Square is still a superbly unpleasant delight—the comedy equivalent of a vinegar caramel or salted licorice.

With a 142-minute running time, concision is less important to the The Square than weaving a striking tapestry of ridiculous peoples, places, and situations. There is, as one might expect, quite a bit of comedy about the pretense, vapidity, and impenetrability of modern art. However, Östlund generally resists the temptation to engage in the sort of “My Kid Could Paint That” scoffing that inevitably attends popular reactions to works of abstract and conceptual art. The writer-director is more absorbed with his setting’s potential to amplify the wry comedy of the uncomfortable. Accordingly, much of the film consists of loosely connected vignettes about (or adjacent to) the museum’s day-to-day operations. Some of these incidents have plot repercussions, while others simply add thin, droll layers to the film’s dense portrait of high culture buffoonery.

In the latter category, for example, is a wordless, Tati-esque scene in which a janitorial worker attempts (unsuccessfully) to negotiate a floor buffer around an art installation consisting of neat piles of gravel. There’s no grand payoff for this, just a subsequent aside between curators about surreptitiously repairing the damage to the exhibit. The exchange reveals a bit of Christian’s craven, unscrupulous side; otherwise, it’s just funny for the sake of funny. In another relatively autonomous sequence, a moderated talk with an artist (Dominic West) is repeatedly interrupted by an audience member with Tourette syndrome. Crucially, Östlund doesn’t present the scene to mock the afflicted individual. Instead, he focuses on the embarrassed reactions of everyone else, whose progressive-minded tolerance for the disabled fidgets uncomfortably alongside the untenable distraction of yelped obscenities. (There’s also the matter of the unsubtle editorializing inherent in cutting off an artist’s vacuous ramblings with shouts of “Bullshit!”)

Much of The Square’s art-centric humor relies on these sort of ludicrous juxtapositions, and the most obvious criticism of the film is that savaging the modern art world is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. Indeed, revealing the silliness of the cultural elite is practically satire on Easy Mode, and some part of Östlund clearly delights in walloping his socially conscious audience right in the stomach with an irony sledgehammer. One loses count of how many times the director slides in a pointed shot of a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk just outside the museum, contrasting the grubby reality outside the institution with the high-minded excess of events inside its galleries and offices. (The inequity is funny because it’s tragic. Or something.)

However, Östlund’s approach ultimately proves to be far more nimble and complex than initial appearances might suggest. His Stockholm is more Springfield than South Park: Equal-opportunity in its satirical ambitions but rarely snottily contemptuous. Significantly, many of the cutting-edge works of contemporary art showcased in the film are genuinely audacious and intriguing. Östlund takes pains to illustrate that their absurdity derives mostly from their ill-conceived implementation, and from the way that banal situations take on a surreal shading when they unfold in spaces where the abstract is rendered boldly tangible. Standard cringe comedy fodder like tense morning-after bickering, for example, becomes sublimely daft due to the sporadic, cacophonous thudding from some unseen installation piece. It’s not that the art is inherently preposterous; it’s that the art’s presence makes an awkward situation even more deliriously farcical.

Notwithstanding some swipes at a pair of soulless twenty-something advertising wunderkinds, the only target for which The Square has (mostly) unmitigated disdain is Christian. Middle-aged and nominally liberal, the curator is an egomaniac who uses pretension to mask his selfish gutlessness and anxious masculinity. (European black comedy has made a veritable cottage industry of taking down pricks like Christian.) A relentless womanizer who fusses over his chic wardrobe and his shock of floppy black hair, he’s the sort of insufferable phony who carefully rehearses the “unscripted” parts of his speeches.

The closest thing to a traditional plot in The Square involves the saga of Christian’s stolen smartphone and wallet, the retrieval of which escalates into a Coens-worthy fiasco riddled with unforeseen consequences. After tracking the pickpocketed phone’s location to a housing project, Christian and his IT assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) devise a drunken and colossally stupid plan to get it back, and things snowball from there. Initially, this plot is only glancingly connected to the museum vignettes, but Christian’s obsession with the phone debacle distracts him from his management duties at a key moment, leading to scandal for the institution and a subsequent political reckoning. Östlund gives both halves of the story—the museum set-pieces and Christian’s after-hours bungling—comparable weight, deftly using each one to comment on the other.

Every scene featuring Christian reveals a smidgen more of his noxious character, ensuring that when his comeuppance finally arrives, it feels richly deserved. Despite his pomposity, the man is, at bottom, a jellyfish: In one of the film’s most casually hilarious moments, he shifts his position from stalwart defender of artistic freedom to whiny finger-pointer in about five seconds, without a hint of self-awareness. The curator has more depth to his personality than did Force Majeure’s Tomas, but Christian is also the only character in The Square who is more than an unfocused collection of attributes.

The roles and relationships of the myriad assistant curators, museum directors, creative consultants, and wealthy benefactors who flit through the film are never clarified, which is arguably fitting. The Square primarily follows Christian’s viewpoint, and in his eyes the rest of the world is divisible into underlings to be bullied, superiors to be avoided, and sexual conquests to be claimed. Elizabeth Moss portrays Anne, an American arts journalist who interviews and then awkwardly hooks up with the curator, and while she is astute and sharp-tongued, the viewer never learns much about her. (Least of all why she keeps a bonobo chimpanzee in her apartment, one of Östlund’s rare instances of overreach in the pursuit of the weird.)

In Östlund’s conception, the bold aims of contemporary art don’t amount to much if a self-absorbed jackwagon with terrible judgment is serving as the cultural gatekeeper. Case in point: the titular Square, which is the lynchpin of the museum’s latest exhibition. A quadrangle of light set into the museum’s cobblestone plaza, the installation is intended as a sort of social consciousness exercise. Visitors are invited to stand within the square and ask passersby for help with anything they might need. Paradoxically, although “The Square” is the flagship of Christian’s recent efforts as curator, it’s the one work presented in the film that feels utterly toothless, a flimsy attempt to kick-start some vague movement of universal compassion. Proving that Östlund is not above self-mockery, the anodyne manifesto that accompanies the “The Square” is the same one that the director and producer Kalle Boman penned for an analogous real-world art installation in 2014.

The viewer never observes anyone using “The Square” installation for its intended purpose. However, a person asking for (or refusing) help is a relentlessly recurring motif in the film, one that extends beyond the proliferation of panhandlers in the story’s fore- and background. (Östlund, incidentally, is shrewdly evenhanded in his portrayal of the homeless, depicting them as alternately polite and obliging or tetchy and churlish, depending on the individual in question.) Christian suffers repeated reversals of fortune in which he is obliged to ask strangers for help, and the film derives some enjoyment from the spectacle of such a self-important twit being forced to beg on his knees (figuratively, at least). Elsewhere in the film, the appeals for aid are more disturbing: passive-aggressive efforts to unload disagreeable tasks; hysterical screams echoing through a crowded plaza; faint yet incessant sobs emanating from a darkened stairwell; and, in the film’s most notorious set piece, a terrified woman shrieking for help as she is assaulted by a performance artist.

In this latter scene, the artist, Oleg (Terry Notary), debuts an aggressively confrontational performance piece in which he runs amok among the museum's wealthy benefactors, mimicking a wild ape. (The scene was reportedly inspired by Russian artist Oleg Kulik, whose pieces often include performers imitating animals.) Notary is an apt choice, as his recent filmography includes simian roles such as Rocket in the Planet of the Apes features and the titular king-sized gorilla in Kong: Skull Island. The actor’s performance is both eerily exacting in its mimicry and 110% committed to the scene’s seat-squirming unpleasantness (and sexual ickiness).

Östlund essentially presents the performance as a slow-motion horror sequence, in which the hundred or so patrons in attendance at a benefit dinner are first amused at Oleg's antics; then uneasy; then distressed; then petrified. Christian attempts to cut the performance short, but the artist disregards him, pawing at people and chasing them around room while hooting maniacally. It soon becomes apparent that the situation will not end until Oleg relents (unlikely) or he is physically restrained. Östlund is dexterous here: The director manages to illustrate how daring and galvanic performance art can be, while also specifically excoriating Oleg for violating attendees’ consent and Christian for greenlighting such a disaster in the first place.

If there’s a modest humanity to be found underneath Östlund’s prim yet gleeful savaging of the art world and its denizens, it’s in the film’s acknowledgement that everyone is embroiled in a quietly miserable tug-of-war between their needs and wants on one side, and their vanity and shame on the other. Even Christian is afforded sympathy in select scenes, as when he frankly apologizes for overreacting to his young daughters’ quarreling, or when he is rather baselessly pilloried from both the political right and left during a press conference. By pulling back and revealing the witch’s brew of outrage, twaddle, and apathy that public figures are obliged to choke down with a smile, the film retroactively softens the jaw-dropping vanity of Christian’s earlier appeals to his minor celebrity. Östlund also provides historical context by observing the museum staff and benefactors as they drunkenly sneak into the adjacent Swedish royal residence. There, the even sharper wealth disparity of an earlier age is on display, underlining that the out-of-touch elite are hardly unique to the 21st century.

Much like Force Majeure, The Square starts to lose some of its already-modest narrative momentum in the film’s final stretch, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the myriad subplots have been left dangling by design. There is fallout from Christian’s mishandling of a promotional video for the exhibition, for example, but no visible repercussions from Oleg’s catastrophic and potentially actionable performance, which is never even mentioned after the fact. There’s a boldness to this deliberately unsatisfying approach, as when Christian’s tardy but earnest attempt to confess one of his misdeeds concludes with an ambiguous sputter. Although The Square presents a slightly cartoonish depiction of the art world, the film is authentic when it insists that events are not easily divisible into tidy dramatic arcs. However, in a feature where actual plot is already sharing screen time with standalone scenes of art world folly, Östlund’s determination to let Christian’s story simply trail off has the side effect of making the film’s final 15 minutes or so feel particularly listless.

Whether any given viewer will find The Square delicious or excruciating will largely depend on their attitude towards cringe comedy as a subgenre. Much like superhero features or slasher flicks, the humor of the deeply uncomfortable has its dedicated admirers, but there’s little point in trying to convince an avowed skeptic of its merits. One either gets it or one doesn’t, which is not a judgment about individuals’ sophistication (or lack thereof), but an acknowledgement that genre is a fuzzy category rather than a statement of cinematic merit. There are corkers and clunkers in every category, and much like the recent Thor: Ragnarok, Östlund’s film is the former: a terrific exemplar of its sort of thing, executed with great assurance and wit. However, if a viewer’s funny bone isn’t tickled by the prospect of self-important Swedes in tuxedos and evening gowns being tormented by a half-naked man behaving like a chimpanzee, The Square may not be for them.

Rating: B