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Sophie Monks Kaufman

The Square – first look review

This barbed satire of art world pomposity questions the core beliefs of civilised society.

The Swedish director Ruben Östlund loves to satirise middle class complacency by presenting moments of absurd humour within high-gloss tableaux. In his previous film, Force Majeure, he targeted the concept of masculinity. This time, the bullseye is drawn on those who profess a sensitivity for art, but show inhumanity to actual people.

Considering that The Square just premiered at the world’s most esteemed arthouse film festival, the provocation is audaciously close to home. Although, taking this notion to its logical limit, one must ask: is there any value to his film? Does Östlund think we would be better people if we spent 140 minutes talking to each other instead of watching The Square?

Not a story inasmuch as a series of thematically-connected visual anecdotes, The Square is held together by the presence of museum curator, the gangly and floppy-haired Christian. The actor playing him, Claes Bang, has an amazingly variable face. In repose it is handsome like a smooth bastard in a car commercial, but when crinkled, it belongs to a harried father. Christian frequently appears baffled. His mouth has a tendency to hang open.

Due to his air of distracted confusion, Christian looks like someone who had just been shaken down for his phone, wallet and grandfather’s cufflinks. This theft actually happens, and the wacky scheme to retrieve his goods sets in motion events that will eventually cause Christian’s civilised mask to fall away. Developments in this arc are shuffled in a deck of miscellaneous scenes from life in a museum. Each set-piece unfolds with a deadpan naturalism that builds to highlight the ridiculousness of everyone and everything enabled by this airily perfect setting. Punchlines are not profound. They tickle rather than skewer. The fact that gorgeous images and scenarios have been crafted in service of impish gags is what creates a subversive pleasure.

Elisabeth Moss pops up to play an endearingly awkward, monkey-owning American journalist who has a fling with Christian. Their scenes together are deliciously silly, a fact amplified by the humourless tone both adopt. This film is worth watching alone for Moss’ devastatingly concentrated sex face.

High-concept slapstick is not the sum total of Östlund’s goals here. Within the museum environment, there are no stakes beyond light comedy, but in the broader world, people suffer, and Christian’s cowardly self-absorption has consequences. A turning point involves an invisible theatre performance that sees wild man Oleg running into a room full of wealthy donors. When this exploited circus act goes awry, the knife the director has lodged in the back of his art-world characters begins to drip blood.

Like Michael Haneke with a funny bone instead of a magnifying glass, Ruben Östlund’s vision of humanity is a bleak, almost faithless caricature of our most craven impulses. Nonetheless, there is truth in his perspective: art does inspire high-minded principles that mean nothing without real life application. It’s quite a message to send the world’s critics, and if his art does prove to be meaningless, then at least it is self-aware.

Tags: Dominic West Elisabeth Moss Ruben Östlund

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