The silly and serious The Square delights in the agony it creates for the audience. In extended, increasingly uncomfortable sequences surrounding the curator of a national museum, the film delivers cringey laughs over its lethargic length. Director Ruben Östlund has even more on his mind than his previous film, the acerbic family dark comedy Force Majeure, but just as much intention to make the audience uncomfortable for what he reflects back at them.
Claes Bang’s curator Christian tries to navigate the commerce of art as the museum faces controversy for its handling of an otherwise peaceful upcoming exhibition. Meanwhile his personal life begins to crumble as he develops a sexual relationship with a journalist (a ferociously funny Elisabeth Moss) and an insignificant theft evolves into mounting moral consequences. In between, there’s also bombastic performance art pieces, musings on class, and some tug of war with a used condom – you know, as one does. It’s admittedly a lot of weight for one movie to handle, but Östenlund does keep the film entertaining and intellectually engaging.
However, Östenlund does present the film as snidely condescending to its audience as the equally hilarious Force Majeure. Whereas that film had a more specific target, here Östenlund’s wide reaching ideology doesn’t land quite as effectively and his disdain is what makes the lingering impact. The film often highlights the indifference to actual, breathing humanity that its art world exhibits, but doesn’t stand by that righteousness in its own attitudes toward its characters. It’s not quite false, but is a blindspot in this highly moral-focused enterprise.
Single passages of the film are where it impresses most, and the film is perhaps better viewed as disassociated chapters within a single narrative. The climactic man-ape performance art piece is one of its most effective stabs at flipping the bird to the kind of empty patronage that considers neither artistic meaning or its implications, and with its own dark undercurrent. While it sometimes seems Östenlund’s general target is just “people”, his sharpest aim is on those who engage with and support art merely for show. It’s an attack on pretentiousness, even if it’s overreach might confuse the audience as pretentiousness in itself.
While Östenlund doesn’t yet quite prove to be the master satirist from the promise of his previous film, but The Square shows that he is ambitious in expanding his sights. For an auteur so humorously interested in showing us our bullshit, he already continues to find new ways to rub our faces in it delightfully.