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With: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Linda Anborg, Christopher Laesso, Annica Liljeblad, Emelie Beckius, Jan Lindwall
Written by: Ruben Östlund
Directed by: Ruben Östlund
MPAA Rating: R for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence
Language: English, Swedish, Danish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 142
Date: 11/03/2017

The Square (2017)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)


By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The winner of the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, The Square is the newest film by Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund, a specialist in the discomfort and awkwardness of humans at their worst. His breakthrough film Force Majeure (2014) was as difficult to watch as it was a powerful portrayal of male cowardice. The Square is arguably a better film, richer and more complex. It gazes disturbingly, absurdly head-on as humans unused to conflict find themselves challenged.

It centers on a curator, Christian (Claes Bang), at a modern art museum in Stockholm. As the movie opens, he is awkwardly interviewed by an American television journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who will return later.

Then, he is involved in a complex con game. A woman screams "help" and runs into the arms of a man near him on the sidewalk. An angry man chasing her comes up, but Christian and the first man protect the woman. The angry man goes away and the two men have a moment of adrenaline-filled relief at having been "heroes," but whether the three were working together or not, someone has stolen his phone, his wallet, and his cufflinks (which belonged to his grandfather).

At work, Christian and one of his staff, Michael (Christopher Laesso), come up with a plan. They have tracked the phone and pinpointed it inside an apartment building. They decide to write up a note and leave it in every mailbox in the place, threatening to expose the thieves. Their ploy works, and Christian gets his stuff back. But unfortunately, someone else contacts Christian, asking for an apology for the accusation, or else.

While all this is happening, Christian runs into Anne again at a party and ends up sleeping with her. (In one of the movie's most off-putting images, it appears that Anne lives with a Chimpanzee, which is never acknowledged in any way. The chimp simply turns up in certain shots.) The sex turns weird for several reasons, and Anne confronts him, later, in the museum, next to an exhibit that looks like a rickety pile of chairs, accompanied by a repeating recording of crashes.

In another subplot, an advertising agency has been hired to promote the museum's new exhibit, "The Square," which is supposed to be a place you can step inside, where all humans are equal and will listen to and help one another. They assert that they want something "shocking," and what they come up with is certainly that.

Ostlund crafts all this over a leisurely 2 and a half hours, folding the different events up against one another, and drawing a portrait of Christian. In his mind, Christian thinks of himself as a minor celebrity, sophisticated, perhaps very handsome (he looks like he could be the next James Bond), and certainly wealthy enough to afford a nice apartment. He goes to parties and dances and drinks and plays the piano. But we are allowed to see him in his most sweatily human moments, moments that are generally considered awkward and embarrassing.

Some of the movie's most memorable images and scenes are the ones that don't necessarily further Christian's storyline, but rather further serve to underline the movie's themes. The centerpiece is a banquet for the museum's funders and VIPs. In the middle of it, a voice announces, "welcome to the jungle." A man comes out mimicking an ape (he's played by Terry Notary, who was also in War of the Planet of the Apes). He moves around the room, vaguely threatening folks, making everyone feel uncomfortable, until he actually crosses a line.

That scene is less subtle than anything in Force Majeure, and way more outrageous. I suppose that whichever of the two films you prefer will be a matter of taste, of how much you can handle during a screening. The main character of Force Majeure was painfully aware of his failures (as much as he tries to deny them), but Christian is generally not. Maybe this opens up the possibility for change for him. But then again, maybe not. Either way, for me this hint of absurdity in The Square helps bring it over the top.

Note: This movie is not to be confused with Joel and Nash Edgerton's crime thriller The Square (2010) or Jehane Noujaim's Netflix documentary The Square (2013), about the Egyptian uprising. No one gets to use this title again for while, okay?

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