Christian, the chief curator of the fictional X-Royal Museum, in Stockholm, is the kind of guy who needs to practice acting casual. It’s a little embarrassing. As played by Danish actor Claes Bang, Christian is tall, with a smartly rimmed pair of specs, an open collar, and a dependably well-matched blazer and scarf. Before he gives a speech about “The Square,” a new, highly conceptual exhibit at the museum, he steals away to a bathroom mirror to rehearse the moment he plans to go off-script. He spouts a mouthful of academic nonsense and then, gently poking fun at himself, puts away his notecards and asks, mock-humbly and to an imagined audience, if it’s OK to start over, more casually this time.
It’s a performance—just as “The Square,” a distinctly modern and participatory work of art, is a call to perform. It’s simple, really: a 4x4-meter square, designated by a white border, that’s situated in the footprint of what used to be the statue of a monarch. It asks us to be kind to each other. “It’s like an empty frame waiting for its contents,” says Christian in his speech. “There is a contract implied by ‘The Square’ to look out for each other.” Its intentions are as vague as they are well-meaning—not unlike Christian himself.
I’ve seen Ruben Östlund’s new movie The Square—which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and seems poised to win Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars—twice now. Neither time did it occur to me that Christian was a guy we were meant to like, exactly. I mean, the scarves alone. As portrayed with a jovial lack of self-awareness by Bang, the guy is a clear target, not least because The Square is a movie in which everyone—artists and their patrons, immigrants and natives, even the homeless—gets satirized. The X-Royal Museum, Christian’s domain, has exhibits ranging from an imposingly large recording of a man doing a frightening ape impression, to neatly ordered clusters of dirt piles titled “You Have Nothing.” Christian’s taste is bullshit—but maybe that’s just me. Well, no, it’s also the view of the Swedish public: These exhibits are conspicuously under-attended, which is but one reason things in The Square get so desperate.
Christian—alongside “The Square,” the museum as a whole, and the art world they collectively represent—is just one of the many parts of his movie Östlund clearly wants us to walk out of the theater arguing about. Östlund, whose last feature was the humorous Oscar shortlisted Force Majeure (2014), has a knack for basking in his characters’ humiliation, particularly men. In that movie, a Swedish family on ski vacation is spun into crisis when an avalanche careens toward their lodge and the dad, acting on instincts he didn’t realize he had, scampers away to safety—and leaves his wife and kids behind. Unluckily for him, they survive. The Square is similarly premised on the ironic conflicts between peoples’ political values and their more selfish instincts. The museum workers, artists, and patrons populating The Square certainly mean well. They politely applaud efforts like “The Square,” after all, despite never stopping to offer change to the homeless lined up just beyond the museum’s perimeter. Isn’t that “The Square” in a nutshell? Within it, per Christian, one might be asked, “Can you help me with a meal?” and be expected to do their fellow citizen a favor. But beyond it, anything goes.
It’s an idea that sets the tone for the entire movie, which, at its best, feels like a battle royal of well-meaning, but nonetheless competing, intentions. In one scene, a man’s rude outbursts keep interrupting a Q&A with a self-absorbed artist played by Dominic West, who’s visibly annoyed until the man’s wife says he has Tourette’s syndrome—at which point the artist and his interviewer try to behave naturally, clenching their teeth through cries of “Shows us your boobs!” and smatterings of laughter. In another, Christian offers a homeless woman a meal and she barks what feel like, to Christian, entitled demands. Part of him, you can tell, thinks she has a lot of nerve. There’s certainly a conversation to be had about whether propping up the homeless and a man with Tourette syndrome for the sake of making petty jabs at the upper classes is really so enlightened. Perhaps there’s also something to be said for making the art world the specific target of that critique. Is consuming art about the ideal of equality, while failing to live up to it, automatically hypocritical? Stockholm’s homeless, who as seen here are largely immigrants, are a strange, constant presence in the movie, repeatedly at the center of shots whose real interest is in the people passing them by. But is that it? The irony of it can’t help but feel superficial.
That’s a low point in a movie that’s a mixed bag overall. Much of it plays pretty intelligently, however, with scene after scene unearthing some new nook in its overarching satire of the hypocritical artistic class—a satire that’s especially effective in light of no one coming to the museum. The movie’s far from plotless, but its real energy lies in it having too much going on, all at once. There’s the disastrous PR strategy used to advertise “The Square,” for example, a manipulation of terror and inequality that insults more than it provokes. There’s the journalist Anne (played by Elisabeth Moss), too, who chips away at Christian’s sexual ego in the midst of him falling apart professionally.
And then, of course, there’s Christian himself, who’s the connective tissue, an avatar of every idea here, and the perfect Östlund hero: selfish and weak, but not totally aware of just how selfish and weak he is. That’s the source of the movie’s humor. At the start of the movie, he gets mugged by a troupe of thieves pretending to be a desperate woman running for danger, her frightening assailant, and a fellow good samaritan. The chin-stroking Christian is ever the curator—ever on the lookout for something to call art. He of course loves being mugged. It’s an adventure! He loves talking about it. He seems to think of the mugging as a performance, which it certainly is—“but is it art?” At the center of The Square is the story of what Christian does to get his phone back, a journey that takes him to the projects and gets him wrapped up in a conflict with a young immigrant boy he’s potentially wronged. One of the most harrowing scenes in the movie is that first trip to the boy’s building. The weird moral vortex into which Christian has thrown himself gets hyped up through a Hitchcockian mix of desperate behavior, flashing lights, and epic flights up and down a spiral stairwell. The trip becomes a nightmare.
It’s well done, like much of the movie. But something about it feels insincere, too. It all manages, despite its efforts to appear otherwise, to fall just short of genuine self-excoriation. This being a movie about the art world and the upper crust, it’s in some ways a movie about Östlund himself. Yet the director somehow manages not to get caught under his own microscope. I walked away from the movie both times thinking, “So, then, what about this movie?” He’s a good enough director to distract you from that for most of the movie’s two-hour-and-22-minute runtime, however. Some of the movie’s scenes are too thrillingly tense not to like. The very best, featuring Terry Notary as a performer hired to throw a museum gala into moral chaos, is somehow the most frightening thing I’ve seen this year. It’s one of a handful of scenes here that’s ultimately better than the movie as a whole, because it makes us see that Östlund’s premise is genuinely putting its finger on something too dangerous to be pat.
Östlund is skilled at devising situations like this, which cleverly tear away his characters’ veneer of respectability to expose who they really are. He’s an outright behaviorist. And the best moments in his work are the ones which do more than prove his thesis: They blow the lid off. Otherwise, Östlund finds himself mired in a style that seems to exemplify precisely the kind of middle-class, middle-brow, liberal intellectualism he’s satirizing—and I don’t know if I entirely buy the implicit wink-wink of the overlap. Someone somewhere is going to charge this movie with corny pandering. Maybe they already have—and they’re probably right. But I guess that’s the point.