by George Wolf
Ruben Ostlund is a filmmaker fascinated with social contracts. He dissects them with a precision that can be both insightful and comedic. And now with The Square, he displays an equally deft handling of the absurd.
In 2014’s Force Majeure, Ostlund brilliantly exposed the folly of mixing societal assumptions and righteous intentions. This time out, his eye is trained on the growing distance between the classes and the social quandaries of privileged egocentricities.
Christian (Claes Bang) is curator at an art museum in Sweden, making preparations for the debut of a new exhibition called The Square. Once unveiled, it promises a “sanctuary of trust and caring,” where all will enjoy equal rights.
As Christian and his team ponder various marketing plans for the new venture, Christian’s phone and wallet are stolen, he must fight Anne (Elizabeth Moss) for possession of a used condom, a monkey puts on makeup in a lavish hotel suite, an aggrieved young boy makes good on a promise to fill Christian’s life with chaos, and two men race to right a wrong in a vehicle they giddily dub the “Tesla of Justice.”
Regardless of whether you’re able to make sense of it all, Ostlund continues to bring visionary scope to his writing and direction. Nearly every frame becomes a lavishly fascinating microscope, probing deep into the inner impulses and outward pressures that are constantly forming our actions and reactions.
The humor is dark and droll, often awkward and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but The Square (winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes) is also alternatively weird and occasionally freakish. Scenes are filled with subtle subtexts, shifting tones and burgeoning ideas, but through it all, Ostlund weaves a persistent, telling theme.
Character after character is seen, through different forms and varying levels of desperation, asking for help. As society is not quite the sanctuary of trust and caring offered by the new exhibit, Ostlund digs into both the motivations for, and reactions to, these pleas, always relishing the chance to open wounds and twist knives.
The Square is more evidence that Ostlund is a challenging, ambitious filmmaker whose work demands attention. It’s a visceral, thoroughly rewarding experience.