Ruben Östlund/ Sweden Denmark France Germany/ 2017/ 151 mins
At Filmhouse, Edinburgh from Fri 16 Mar 2018
After winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, and being nominated for the Academy Award for best film foreign film, The Square steams into cinemas in a billowing cloud of expectation. It’s an ambitious sprawl of a film, but aims its satirical cannons in too many directions, leaving a scattershot experience of only intermittent satisfaction.
Christian (Claes Bang) is the suave curator of the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm. After he has his phone and wallet stolen, his reaction triggers a series of mishaps that not only undermines his professional position, but the way he views himself and his supposedly liberal, compassionate values. These include a small boy that aims to “make chaos” for him, an odd sexual encounter with an American journalist (an underused Elisabeth Moss), and a Brass Eye-esque promotional video for a new installation that goes viral.
Rammed to the gills with scenes that veer between a dark comedy of manners, and watch-through-your-fingers cringe, The Square aims to satirise contemporary art, and the bystander culture of modern society. This is best exemplified in the scene at dominates the posters and the trailer, in which Terry Notary plays a performance artist that interrupts a dinner party of museum patrons in the guise of an aggressive ape. It escalates to uncomfortable, disturbing and extreme levels before anyone intervenes. It’s one of the most extraordinary scenes in recent memory, and is almost worth the price of admission alone.
As with the excellent Force Majeure in 2014, Östlund sees a hapless male protagonist slowly stripped of his position of power. However, where the earlier film was a streamlined and precise black comedy that put the nuclear family under an uncomfortable microscope, The Square is just too unfocused and often infuriating. Bang is undeniably terrific at peeling the layers away from his complacent alpha male, but he’s too often howling into a chaotic void. The attacks on modern art lack any real insight, mainly thanks to that medium’s inherent propensity for self-parody, and the scenes of brilliance fail frustratingly to form a coherent, satisfying whole; instead remaining a disparate collection of occasionally impressive vignettes.
The problem with the approach Östlund takes is that in attacking pretension with pretension the film threatens to ingest itself like a Sumo wrestler’s testicles. There are moments littered throughout this messy, bloated exercise that are simply jaw-dropping, but they don’t elevate The Square into the sphere of greatness at which Force Majeure hinted that Östlund is capable. Sadly, it’s an ultimately disappointing curate’s egg of a movie.