King of the cringe-inducing confrontation, nabob of the nervous laugh — if he hadn’t already laid claim to the titles with the withering “Force Majeure,” Ruben Östlund truly anoints himself with “The Square,” an excoriating razor-burn of a movie that deploys drollery like an instrument of torture. Broadening out his canvas from the family dynamics of his previous avalanche movie before slashing it to similarly precise shreds, “The Square” is made up of dozens of scenes of such perfect, short-story polish and bite that it almost feels like a vignette anthology rather than a feature. And yet, at least until an unfortunate slackening of pace and a slight dulling of edge toward the end of a long two hours and twenty minutes, the scathing sensibility remains a constant, dark delight. But it’s a provocative one: as the preachy axiom favored by middle school teachers goes, every time you point at someone there are three fingers pointing back at you, and much of the film’s most incisive humor lands very close to home. Point and laugh all you like but beware, “The Square” is a schadenfreude boomerang.
“The Square” is set in the rarefied reaches of Sweden’s art world, but from that vantage point takes pot shots at marketing, the media, the Swedish culture of militant political correctness as well as the pretension, self-deception, and pseudospeak of the cultural elite. Its remit is broad, but saved from being too scattershot by two main factors. Firstly, it’s all gathered around one central character, Christian, the head curator of a museum of avant-garde art, played in an exceptionally assured performance by the designer-dishevelled Claes Bang, who looks like he stepped from the specific pages in a fashion catalogue that are dedicated to the manly art of the carelessly stylish scarf. As with “Force Majeure”‘s cowardly dad, it is Christian’s moral hypocrisy, un-self-aware egotism and ethical sluggishness that will come under the closest scrutiny, through the series of weird yet plausible encounters that make up his bougie, intellectual-celebrity life. The trials visited on him are endless — he is Job in a Tesla — yet we cannot escape the feeling that his ineffable air of complacent privilege means he somehow deserves them all.
Secondly, while the targets are many and Östlund, admirably, almost always punches up, there is a kind of organizing principle relating to the chasm between the social faces we wear and the self-interested creatures we really are. Snip by snip, in scenarios dripping with acidly observed discomfort, Östlund clips precisely through the barbed-wire barrier fences of culture, sophistication and socialization that refined middle-class modern humans erect between our public selves and our private, animal natures. He’s especially interested in exploiting and exploring that chasm in the males of the species: indeed, you could almost accuse Östlund of misandry, so evidently little does he think of the moral courage of any of his male characters, Christian in particular.
This disdain and the observation of a grunting id lurking just beneath Christian’s elegant exterior is apparent from the beginning when he is reluctantly embroiled in a drama on the street. No matter that he soon discovers it was all staged in order to relieve him of his wallet and phone — in the moment, Christian responds to a threatened damsel’s pleas for help with red-blooded masculinity (albeit in tandem with someone else: herd instinct is another facet of human behavior to come under Östlund’s microscope), and it exhilarates him. He high fives the other man involved, made inarticulate and uncharacteristically bro-ish with adrenaline and base impulse. Seemingly emboldened, and egged on by a subordinate at work, he decides to try to regain his lost property through a scheme that has unforeseen consequences (occasioning a terrific juvenile performance from newcomer Elijandro Edouard).
But this is only one thread in the tapestry, and “The Square” explores its central dichotomy from a multitude of different angles. Dominic West plays a visiting artist whose Q&A is constantly interrupted by the profane outbursts of a Tourettic man. Two brash marketing guys, obsessed with going viral, create a YouTube ad for the museum that makes Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad look like a model of corporate sensitivity. The aesthete Christian engages in sex, the most animal act of all with journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss, great, obviously) while in the living room Anne’s pet chimpanzee paints pictures. And in what’s sure to become one of the iconic scenes of this year’s Cannes competition, a benefit dinner for the museum goes frighteningly, hilariously awry when performance artist Oleg (mo-cap actor Terry Notary using his extraordinary physicality to great effect) takes his wild-ape-on-the-loose routine way over the line.
Throughout it all, the formal rigor of Östlund and DP Fredrik Wenzel‘s shooting style remains pristine, with gently lop-sided framing serving to subtly unnerve. The general lack of symmetry keeps the discomfort levels high, but also contrasts with the compositions that are based on squares, often with Christian trapped inside them: overhead views of stairwells; a canvas in his hallway that frames his silhouette; the two times we watch him through a window as he gets stuck between his apartment’s front door and the outer gate.
The title refers to an emperors-new-clothes-style exhibit that Christian’s museum has just purchased. It is an illuminated square a couple of meters wide set into cobblestones, declared by a small plaque nearby to be “a sanctuary of trust and caring.” As such, explains Christian, it’s a place within which anyone who asks for help should be given it. But Christian finds it as hard and humiliating to ask for help as to apologize for a wrongdoing: despite his apparent modernity and refinement, it runs deeply counter to his primal male programming. But then, in “The Square” many elements of “decency” — remorse, conscience, charity, altruism — along with frou-frou luxuries like art, culture and social sensitivity, are at best band-aids over our barely suppressed bestial natures. And it doesn’t seem like Östlund ever met a band-aid he didn’t enjoy peeling off, with slow, somehow delicious sadism, hair by excruciating hair. [A-]