Ruben Östlund follows up Force Majeure with another toe-curling comedy, The Square, which takes aim at the art world and the fragile male ego
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund’s The Square makes for a gripping, surreal satire full of bravado and strangeness. While sprawling in nature, and less cohesive than his previous feature Force Majeure, this is an audacious film revolving around the suave director of a plush art gallery, Christian, played by an arresting Claes Bang.
Walking to work, Christian is hoodwinked by a gang of inventive pickpockets who rob him of his mobile phone and wallet. Spurred on by a colleague, Christian enact his revenge by tracing the criminals to a set of flats (using the Find My Phone app) in a less-than-desirable area of Stockholm. He posts a note in every flat in the block threatening them and demanding the return of his property. It isn’t for nothing Östlund makes sure to show the shifting demography of Sweden, as his lens examines the class and snobbery that pervades the middle class. Christian's petty act of vengeance has a karmic effect, impacting the innocent and guilty alike, and throwing his life into chaos.
Christian has other problems. He needs his gallery to have a big hit and is banking on a new exhibition dubbed “The Square”, a four by four metre square that is a symbolic place of “trust and caring”. He employs a crew of media yuppies at a fashionable PR agency to drum up hype for the new show. They opt for a controversial approach, which they promise will “go viral”, in an attempt to court the YouTube generation.
Christian’s ego is wounded by the robbery and the alpha male needs to reassert his dominance. But his actions lead to a series of poor judgements that infiltrate his personal and professional life. One of those poor choices is a one-night stand with a TV interviewer (Elizabeth Moss). After their drunken escapades they argue over the disposal of the condom, while in another room a chimpanzee is inexplicably drawing with crayons. This is one of a series of scenes of Buñuellian surrealism in The Square, which is full of Östlund’s particular brand of comedy that frequently has you laughing one moment and gritting your teeth the next.
One of the more disturbing moments comes at a charity fundraiser for the gallery. The wealthy of Stockholm excitedly gather to witness a piece of performance art involving an artist, Oleg (played by Planet of the Apes star Terry Notarty), who impersonates a chimp. Initially his act earns him the odd awkward smile, but perhaps over-committed to his performance, he ends up assaulting Julian (Dominic West), the event's guest of honour, and dragging a woman by her hair in what is a truly disturbing and violent scene.
Where Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, explored cowardice, The Square sees him point his camera at the fragile male ego and ask exactly how far removed we are from our primate cousins. The Square proves what a sorry species we are, but the film isn’t without hope for humanity – there is the odd redeeming feature here and there, even if our ego ultimately gets in the way.
Like Force Majeure before it, this is cinema that will make you squirm in your seat. But this time Östlund has truly unleashed his wild side in a daring film that misses very few beats.