I once interviewed filmmaker Steven Soderbergh on stage in front of an audience that included one person who occasionally made canine barking sounds that resounded through the hall. This was only mildly distracting, and if it were a person with Tourette’s Syndrome or something, I’m glad he came and took in the event. It did make me wonder, sitting there on stage, what I should do if things got actually disruptive.
Things get disruptive under similar circumstances in The Square, and—typically for this wicked film—nobody’s reactions help anything. A pretentious artist (Dominic West), who apparently always wears pajamas, is being interviewed before a museum crowd when an audience member begins screeching out obscene suggestions. The snooty spectators quickly turn on the unfortunate man, while the artist grandly shows everyone how cool he is by welcoming this chaotic moment. The scene is both excruciating and funny, and thus in tune with the rest of what happens in The Square, the sprawling winner of this year’s top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
There are at least a half-dozen subplots buzzing inside the film. At the center is a contemporary-art installation that gives the movie its name: a marked-off rectangle in the pavement outside a Stockholm art museum, a space where people are meant to practice kindness and behave responsibly. Literally and figuratively, the characters in the movie stay outside the square. This fizzy satire is a showcase for vanity and shallowness.
But don’t tune out just yet: The saving grace of The Square is its relentless humor. Director Ruben Östlund’s previous film was the icy-sharp Force Majeure, which was focused in a way The Square is definitely not. Here Östlund lets his imagination fly in every direction, and the result is a movie that stays alive—often hilariously—from moment to moment, even when it doesn’t seem to be adding up. Our main character is Christian (Claes Bang), the director of the museum. When his phone is snatched one day, he goes off on an ill-conceived plan to confront the culprit, an exercise that has all kinds of unforeseen consequences. Things fall apart after that, from Christian’s strange one-night stand with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss, of The Handmaid’s Tale) to a disastrously tasteless ad campaign devised by the museum’s ultra-hip marketing team.
The absurdities of the art world are an easy target, and some of Östlund’s satirical jibes are musty. But even if the points have been made before, they’re energetically played. The most outrageous sequence is a posh museum fundraiser where a shirtless performance artist is presented as the evening’s special offering; he runs amok, in imitation of a wild beast. At first the assembled flatter themselves on how transgressive they all are, then everybody nervously wonders who will step in and end the violence. Terry Notary, a motion-capture actor who specializes in apes, is appropriately unsettling as the performer.
The Square is a big, bursting movie, and it includes ideas and characters that are set up without being resolved. When you’re a director coming out of nowhere (well, Sweden) and you score an international success like Force Majeure, you really ought to swing for the fences with your next project. Östlund does exactly that. For me the excitement waned as the film got into the last stages of its 142-minute run time, but until then it fulfills the requirements of an arthouse roller-coaster ride. It helps that Östlund has a secret weapon in the splendidly-named Claes Bang, a tall, dapper Danish actor who glides through the film’s nuttiness with the aplomb of a born leading man. His Christian is smart, stylish, and just morally complacent enough to mess up everything. Bang is 50, and if there’s any justice this film will do for him what Inglourious Basterds did for Christoph Waltz: put a quirkily distinctive actor in front of a much wider audience. Opens Friday, Nov. 10, at SIFF Cinema Uptown, Rated R