Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss star in Ruben Ostlund’s latest film, in which the enlightened and well-heeled seldom even try to live up to their own ideals, is as entertaining as it is damning. Rating: 3 stars out of 4.
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s last film, “Force Majeure,” began with the rumble of an alpine avalanche and the wallop of a shattered self-image. When a swelling white tide appears headed straight for an outdoor cafe, a panicked father flees with his iPhone, but not his children or wife. Their respect for him is undone in a cloud of snow.
In Ostlund’s follow-up, the Cannes Palme d’Or-winning “The Square,” an upper-class, highly placed man is again humbled by a latent cowardice, but one that reveals itself in more subtle and daily acts of fraudulence.
Claes Bang stars as Christian, the handsome and suave chief curator of a Stockholm contemporary art museum. In the early scenes, we see him trying to explain a pompous museum description to an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) and rehearsing remarks for a museum event that he will later pretend are off-the-cuff. He’s a smooth operator with the practiced air of privilege.
Movie Review ★★★
‘The Square,’ with Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Dominic West. Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. 145 minutes. Rated R for language, some strong sexual content and brief violence. In English and Swedish, with English subtitles. Opens Nov. 10 at SIFF Cinema Uptown.
That the high-minded contemporary art world would have something a touch fake about it is far from a new idea. But Ostlund, in his fifth feature, has more expansive satire in mind. The title of “The Square” refers to an exhibit the museum is preparing in a city courtyard in which a square is laid into the cobblestone street. “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” reads the description. “Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.”
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Outside of the square, not so much. Throughout the film, Christian and others who espouse such enlightened ideals of community are seen failing to live up to them — and often not even trying to. “The Square” is a consistently clever odyssey of modern-day hypocrisy that rambles and hiccups but seldom lacks Ostlund’s charming but clinical satirical touch. It’s as entertaining as it is damning.
In the film’s centerpiece, a muscular performance artist posing as a gorilla (Terry Notary) runs amok at a fancy fundraising dinner. He stalks the well-dressed attendees until an air of real fear sets in. Only after the performer has thoroughly harassed one woman does anyone dare to protest; once a single man stands up, dozens follow. Compassion runs in herds.
“The Square,” where the enlightened and well-heeled are always gliding past beggars, remains a potent satire. The key, I think, is the exceptional Bang, a tall and dapper Danish actor who could legitimately play James Bond. He portrays Christian with just the right cocktail of vulnerability and arrogance. That he’s so easy to see through makes him, in a funny way, almost lovable.