Great filmmakers tend to work in favored subject areas that come to characterize entire careers. It's hard to imagine Wes Anderson without his character-driven whimsy, or Alfred Hitchcock obsessing on something other than the dark side of human nature.
Swedish director Ruben Ostlund seems to have adopted a narrow focus for his increasingly daring films: how the person each of us would like to be differs from who we really are in the context of everyday life — or the gulf that exists between private ideals and public actions.
This is fertile ground for satire. Ostlund's 2014
Force Majeure imagined a husband and father who turns his own life upside down when he panics and runs from a harmless avalanche instead of protecting his family. The Square focuses on a sophisticated and self-satisfied museum curator whose life spins out of control when he responds to being robbed on the street with a series of bad, seemingly uncharacteristic decisions.
The Square won the 2017 Palme d'Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but it intentionally challenges the conventions of "serious" independent filmmaking. Scathingly funny and wildly unpredictable, the film blends biting black comedy with the relentless tension and dread of a Hollywood thriller. Ostlund skewers the contemporary art world, internet journalism, viral marketing and other available targets, all while suggesting that even the most socially conscious among us might benefit from a little honest self-reflection.
For all its insight and ambition, the sprawling 150-minute The Square falls short of bringing together its disparate elements into a satisfying whole. But it still feels like essential viewing for anyone interested in the current state of film.
The story has two main roads that eventually cross. Successful museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) becomes obsessive about reacquiring his stolen wallet and cellphone, even though he easily can afford to replace what he lost, leading him into a darker world where casual privilege can prove a liability.
At the same time, Christian is preparing to mount a conceptual art exhibition titled "The Square," in which an outdoor area is marked off as a sanctuary where everyone shares "equal rights and obligations," human needs can be expressed and help offered. The exhibition is deemed lacking in conflict and controversy by the museum's millennial marketing team, which takes matters into its own hands with literally explosive results.
Ostlund is known for encouraging his actors to improvise and explore all possible creative avenues through dozens of takes of individual scenes. In The Square, this method results in a variety of unforgettable moments.
In one brief but hilarious scene, a clueless American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) confronts an acquaintance inside the museum about their one-night stand while the rumbling, hydraulically powered sculpture behind them repeatedly interrupts and comments on their tense conversation.
The film's set piece is an increasingly uncomfortable 11-minute scene in which a performance artist played by Terry Notary — the motion-capture specialist known for his work in recent Planet of the Apes movies — acts as a wild animal to menace a black-tie crowd at a museum fundraising dinner. Blurring the lines between art and sociology experiment, the scene brilliantly illustrates some ugly truths about self-interest and social behavior.
The point of this and many other scenes in The Square is to jolt audiences out of their complacency and inspire thoughtful discussion. On that score, at least, The Square proves an unqualified success.