Not quite as powerful as avalanche aftermath drama Force Majeure, Palme d’Or-winner The Square still packs a punch. Uncomfortably surreal.
One of the most eye-opening movies of 2014, Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (Turist) was as memorable for its striking snowy mountain backdrop and stylish hotel interiors as it was for the gripping familial drama erupting at its heart, as a father cops the fall out for abandoning his wife and kids in the face of an oncoming avalanche.
His follow up The Square scooped up the Palme d’Or up in its mighty wake at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and it’s certainly intriguing, if not quite as sustained in its devastation.
With an opening act that plays as a fairly light-hearted satirical commentary on contemporary art, the media – social or otherwise – privilege and political correctness, Claes Bang, a dead ringer for a young Pierce Brosnan, stars as Christian, the suave and sophisticated a head curator at a fictional Stockholm institution called the X-Royal Museum.
Walking to work one morning, an inexorable series of unfortunate events is precipitated when his wallet and phone are swiped in a crafty team effort just before the launch of the museum’s new blockbuster exhibition, The Square of the title, whose centrepiece is a laughably lofty physical boundary carved into the courtyard cobbles meant to symbolise the social contract.
It turns out that for Östlund, the jokes on Christian. He really is a bit of an insufferable fool floating far above the vaulting promises of his curations, so much so that he finds it entirely impossible to provide a straight answer to Elizabeth Moss’ admittedly less than probing television journalist Anne when she questions his brochure gibberish.
It’s biting stuff as hypocrisy is lampooned with plenty of visual gags, including piles of dust lit by a neon sign saying “You Have Nothing,” that falls foul of a cleaner’s vacuum and is hastily rectified by Christian, and also the dropping and decapitating of a historical statue to make room for the new wave.
Christian’s veneer of polite propriety soon drops as the film shifts into a darker cycle focused on his self-centred superiority. With the aid of bomber jacketed young hipster employee Michael (Christopher Læssø), he hatches a bizarre vengeance plot to get his phone back.
Following its Find My Phone signal to a tower block in an area they deem to be rough, i.e working class, Christian follows a cowardly chicken Michael’s advice to mail drop every apartment with a photocopied threat that sparks big trouble down the line.
There’s also an uncomfortably gross out battle of the sexes as an unprofessional one night stand becomes a stand-off over a used condom, with a cloud of sexism and cold calculation hanging pungent in the air. Meanwhile, his lack of focus on the day job (and on his kids, for that matter) sparks a PR disaster for the museum when a viral advertising gimmick goes horribly wrong.
Compounding that misstep, Anne’s strange choice of a gorilla as flat mate, as the film trips more surely into the surreal, foreshadows another forced error as motion capture performer Terry Notary plays a performance art version of said beast in an extravagant sponsors’ dinner that also goes startlingly awry.
It’s a shame, then, that Östlund’s final act fizzles out quite so unsatisfyingly after this incendiary set piece, stooping to increasingly heavy-handed moralising about lives lived in oblivious privilege.
Force Majeure packed an almighty icy punch but was powder light in its delivery. The Square is fascinating, at times hilarious, at others skin-crawlingly uncomfortable, but not quite subtle or smart enough to pull all its disparate ideas together in the end. Worth catching nonetheless, it’s sure to invoke the age-old question: is it art?
Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords
A version of this review first ran during the Sydney Film Festival 2017.