Title: The Square
Country: Sweden, Germany, France, Denmark
Language: Swedish, English, Danish
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Director/Writer: Ruben Östlund
Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel
Lise Stephenson Engstrom
Madeleine Barwén Trollvik
2017’s Palme d’or winner, Swedish absurdist Ruben Östlund’s social satire taps into the life of Christian (Bang), the curator of an art museum in Stockholm, which will descend into a tailspin after his wallet and smartphone is stolen en route to work one day by a confidence trick.
A significant step-up from his uppity marital disintegration inspection FORCE MAJEURE (2014), In THE SQUARE, Östlund has learnt how to let his hair down with more brio and conceal moral condescendence among his sarcastic skits, which makes for a piquant contemporary comedy doesn’t flinch from touching many a raw nerve among audience, anyway, the joke is on all of us because there are something undeniably unsavory residing within every and each human soul, we can laugh about it, but more often than not, a twinge of self-awareness synchronously pulsates.
“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” it is a motto from the museum’s latest exhibition, whose titular installation supersedes an august bronze statue in the opening (with droll maladroitness setting the keynote of the film), but can its underlying altruism transcend from artistic cant into something concrete in reality? Christian’s story will give us a wry answer.
A seemingly harmless plan (although Christian must deign to actualize it) to retrieve his stolen phone actually works, but before Christian’s euphoria subsides, it boomerangs. It only takes a sincere apologize and some explanation to mend the fences, which eventually deteriorates into uncanny paranoia and insidious physical affliction towards a minor is implied, incongruent with the rest of the film’s farcical tenor, but it tests the boundary of how far THE SQUARE is willing to push the buttons, and Östlund shows judicious concerns about what is shown on the screen in slightly gnawing execution, and no easy recompense is dished up in the end.
Elsewhere, jokes are in full swing, starting from the opening interview of Christian from an American journalist Anne (Moss) about the gobbledygook on the museum’s internet, to a faux pas caused by a Tourette’s syndrome patient, and the ludicrous tug-of-war in Anne and Christian’s one-night-stand, apparently with a chimpanzee in the next room, until the dreadful irony in our clickbait media publicity with controversial, eyeball-grabbing gimmick, and a painful realization that it often works. However, the central piece, of course belongs to the hyped (which is on the film’s main poster) performance art of an ape-man radically terrorizing the entire guests of a banquet to a bitter end, motion-capture stuntman Terry Notary totally owns the one-off opportunity in the central stage to redefine primate mimicking and debunk how similarly animalistic we are underneath all the finery exterior, notwithstanding the whole act partakes of a well-orchestrated trick for the sake of scandalization.
A late-bloomer Claes Bang is perfectly apt in inhabiting Christian’s towering figure, dapper mien and jaunty disposition, oozing disarming charisma which veils his self-seeking nature to a degree we even tend to give excuses to him involuntarily (that boy is tenacious and annoying, how on earth his staff could upload that inappropriate video onto their public website without his imprimatur?), and in the gender politics spar with a gutsy Elisabeth Moss (although her part is shamefully peripheral, and her defense of “it takes two to tango” accusation is too feeble to register), which fortuitously hits the hot-button with the current power-abuse cleansing pandemic.
Forsaking a traditional score in favor of a cappella passages to heave the story’s emotional shift, THE SQUARE is a sharp-tongued, rapier-like caricature aiming at a society characterized by class-discrepancy (beggars galore in one of the richest country in the world is a disheartening antimony), patriarchy and apathy, redolent of a visceral tang of self-reflexive mockery with a knowing wink, that is the power of THE SQUARE.