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Ruben Östlund’s last film, 2014’s brilliant Force Majeure, unflinchingly scrutinised a middle class Dad and his family coming apart after one huge fuck up. It’s heightened cringe comedy came from the director’s ability to relentlessly focus on the, let’s say, awkward moments that happen after one abandons their family because of what they mistakenly thought was an avalanche. The camera would stubbornly sit and watch the characters try to worm their way out of an uncomfortable convo without even the sweet relief of a cut to break the tension.
Now, with his Cannes conquering follow up, The Square, Östlund has set his sights on the art world. Claes Bang’s Christian, the capital ‘B’ Bourgeois, lowercase ‘b’ bohemian head curator of a Stockholm museum, is about to launch a new exhibition. The titular square is an ideal space where people can both trust and look after one another. It’s these issues of altruism and trust that both the film and the Square exhibit explore. Things, naturally, begin to unravel when Christian’s phone is stolen and, preoccupied with a macho scheme to get it back, he becomes distracted from his work and carelessly green-lights a mindlessly provocative ad campaign cooked up by a pair of young, empty headed PR men.
Christian is an interesting character; a not outwardly repugnant, handsome, well heeled bullshitter who’s comfortable using the language his education gave him to waffle about conceptual art and deeply uncomfortable when he has to risk anything to help himself or others. He is quietly conceited in most everything he does. We even see him rehearse spontaneity. There is, I think, one scene where he’s being honest and it’s out of egotism. Even when saying something true he seems like he’s bullshitting; an impressive achievement.
Many of the setups in The Square feel traditionally comedic. Someone’s annoyance mounts over a crying baby in a meeting or a sufferer of Tourette’s at an artist’s talk. A scene involving Elisabeth Moss’ Anne, Christian and a used condom is brilliant, uncomfortable tickle torture that, at one point, threatens to turn to gross out slapstick.
Östlund’s ability to create onscreen discomfort is in evidence throughout. Many of the laughs had are of the nervous variety. An early set piece involves Christian and a young museum worker tracking his phone to a working class apartment complex and delivering a threatening note to every flat. Boyish giddiness gives way to bickering about who will actually go inside and the scene of the letter drop has the taught tension of a heist movie, albeit one starring an increasingly panicky man freaking out but unable to back down.
Whereas Force Majeure was driven by plot The Square is much more comfortable being driven by theme. Many sequences and subplots exist to test Christian or to explore where altruism begins and ends for the average person. While almost every frame is expertly crafted, this theme over plot approach does lead to some odd meandering. If the film never goes full absurdist and exists in a world with consequences why does a tasteless viral advert cause such trouble for the museum while several thematically rich assaults go unmentioned? Does one character really need an unexplained, if admittedly funny, pet chimp?
Despite some scattershot chin stroking, The Square largely succeeds in doing for the type of people that go to the theatre what Force Majeure did for men. The world of art and creativity is often seen as less tainted by vulgar self interest as the upper echelons of other business enterprises. By putting this seemingly decent guy through the ringer, Östlund has both challenged that strange notion and created an excruciatingly funny movie.