On the surface, Ruben Östlund’s “The Square” appears to be a loose collection of farcical pot shots at among the easiest of targets, the contemporary art community.
But with a little work — and at two-and-a-half hours, an attentive viewing of “The Square” occasionally does feel like work — writer/director Östlund’s film crystallizes both as a parody of the art world’s pretense to higher moral clarity, and a lament that people so often fall woefully short of those aspirations.
“The Square,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year, opens this weekend at Village 8 Theatres. Östlund’s follow-up to his 2014 critical darling “Force Majeure” doesn’t quite reach the level of its predecessor, but “The Square” does showcase the director’s deft skill at challenging social mores by making his characters, and his audience, uncomfortable in their assumptions.
Claes Bang stars as Christian, the curator of a swank Stockholm museum who is preparing for the opening of a new exhibit, the titular “Square,” which to the unenlightened would appear to be no more than a few strips of Christmas lights laid into the museum’s courtyard.
The artist’s vision is that The Square constitutes a social contract of mutual understanding and respect for all those who enter it. Or, as a couple of hipster PR guys put it, a “promise of trust, caring, moral courage and all that good stuff.”
Most of the film’s vignettes center on Bang’s Christian, who earnestly defends the virtues he advances in his art curation while being mostly a smug, petty jerk in everyday life. “Mostly” is the key here — the film’s great strength is Bang’s ability to occasionally bring a sense of exasperation to his moral failings.
Sure, Christian drives a Tesla and conspicuously avoids carrying cash so he can politely refuse homeless people, who feature prominently throughout. But in the film’s best, quietest moments, Bang and Östlund deftly craft a sense that Christian wants to do the “right” thing, but the harsh realities of dealing with other human beings get in the way.
When Christian steps up in a crowd to help stop an “assault,” turns out that he’s being set up for a clever pick-pocket scheme. This event sets off a series of petty — and frankly stupid — revenge-and-consequences sequences that muddle farce and drama and are the film’s weakest points. Far more powerful are scenes in which Christian interrupts a homeless Muslim man’s prayer to ask for his help, or has an uncomfortable exchange with a woman demanding a ciabatta, no onions.
Then, there are the out-and-out farces, most of which target the art world. Motion-capture performer and choreographer Terry Notary should win a special category Oscar as a performance artist who initially bemuses, then terrifies, and then ultimately enrages the crowd at a big-dollar museum fundraiser.
Elisabeth Moss (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) is brilliant as an American reporter who baits and then ensnares Christian with blather he’s crafted to describe a museum exhibit. (The pair also wrestles over a used condom a little later on, so there’s that.)
And the edgy marketing team that “goes viral” with an internet video promoting “The Square” with an exploding homeless child is a hoot, at least most of the time.
But the unquestioned star of the film is Bang, whose handsome charm shines through in Christian’s most unflattering moments.
Even contemporary art gets fair time — Christian takes his unruly daughters on a tour of the museum’s exhibits surrounding “The Square,” and the audience is left saying, “Oh yeah, I kinda get it.”
Ultimately, Östlund doesn’t come down dogmatically on any side of the questions he raises in “The Square.” That’s both the film’s strength and occasional weakness. “The Square” never comes together as a cohesive whole, but that’s not the director’s goal. As a collection of vignettes, it’s entirely enjoyable and often thought-provoking.
“The Square” opens Friday, Dec. 8, at the Village 8 Theatres. In Swedish, with English subtitles.