The Force Majeure auteur’s new one brings a volcanic eruption of dark laughs, and razored social commentary.
Subverting expectations at every turn, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund returns to the Croisette with The Square; a thrillingly – and uncompromisingly – strange critique of modern art culture. Following the rousing success of his Force Majeure, a piercing and chilly portrait of the upper-middle class, he sets his targets on a similar crowd here, albeit with vastly contrasting settings and arguments.
Opening with a cavalcade of broad and disarming humour, The Square‘s primary strand begins to unravel when handsome, well-heeled art director Christian (Claes Bang) finds himself at the mercy of a tricksy thief. Following a hilariously absurd altercation, his wallet and mobile phone are snatched, leading to a bizarrely public downfall. Christian tracks his device online, locating it within a sketchy apartment block on the other side of the tracks. With the assistance of an employee, he distributes a threatening letter to every property in the complex, demanding for his goods to be returned to a local supermarket. This decision of course comes back to haunt him, in ways which are best savoured as surprises.
Those familiar with Östlund will feel comfortable amidst the scathing absurdities; dialogue comes in potent waves of feverish intensity, shifts in tone so angular you’ll feel the sturdy stumble as you ride them down. Those perhaps newer to his material – attracted to such a project for the involvement of high-calibre English-language performers such as Elisabeth Moss, and Dominic West – might find themselves perplexed and frustrated across its brazen 142 minute duration. This however is no reason not to journey with The Square, which is undoubtedly one of Cannes’ most audacious and downright delightful treats thus far.
Straddling the beam so finitely between sobering dark laughs and cynical social commentary, Östlund’s jabs at the liberal excess of the art world are cold and without remorse. Its introductory moments – which feature Christian being interviewed by Moss’ American journalist, Anne – beautifully details the inane sense of indulgence surrounding such spheres, as she probes our protagonist for an explanation of the most ludicrously elongated statement upon the museum’s website. His inability to find an answer, nor a clear explanation for its purpose, is just one of the auteur’s exquisite examples of deceptively sly writing.
Because sly is an entirely appropriate term for this film, despite the many attention-grabbing, and undeniably uncomfortable moments. The Square somehow manages to be abrasive and discrete; confrontational and subtle. Östlund quietly populates his lens with the idea of fractured humanity; how our basic interactions within our respective communities are often rendered with prejudice and presumption. Blink and you’ll miss the big picture. The titular shape for example is a new exhibition commissioned by Christian and his team following a multi-million council investment – a social space, dimensions of 4×4, which provides a sanctuary for any occupant within its perimeters. A thick backdrop of its Stockholm setting is homelessness; the vulnerable who need support on the day-to-day, and within “The Square”, it is a public obligation to provide.
However, this is Östlund’s land we’re roaming in, and the uneasy territory is peppered with inexplicable chaos for his characters. In its essence and foundations, “The Square” is a means to find something genuine and fulfilling for people who indulge, yet what they ultimately uncover – as wincingly (and gloriously) showcased in an unforgettable dinner scene – is dismay, not divinity. Plentiful voices here are musing that this Palme d’Or competitor is 2017’s Toni Erdmann, and there is much truth in such a statement. Both are slippery, rugged assessments of cultures and personas which ascend socially, and tumble emotionally. However, Maren Ade’s breakout hit benefits from a bewitching sincerity; the same cannot be said for The Square…
The ensemble performance is entirely mesmeric. West’s artist, Julian, is somewhat underused, but he is the shining star in the thick of the aforementioned meal from hell, whilst Moss chews up scenery left, right, and centre, as the snarlingly intense TV interviewer. She’ll embarrass and enlighten in equal measure, and few can deny that The Handmaid’s Tale actress is amongst the most exciting in operation today. However the prize piece is Bang, who deserves serious awards attention from the Jury for his multi-layered and endlessly watchable work. At once bold and meticulous, confused and self-loathing, he wears a definitive façade of a lifestyle and identity, which isn’t strong enough to withstand Östlund’s tugging. Simply brilliant.
The Square is tremendous filmmaking; disarming, merciless, and so direct it’ll puncture the vein. You’ll most certainly squirm, but what a wonderful way to feel discomfort.