To call Ruben Östlund’s latest film a satirical take on the pretensions of the modern art world would be accurate, but also profoundly reductive. The Square not only lampoons the self-important pomposity of allegedly enlightened intelligentsia, it offers scathing commentary on the human condition itself while leaving no sacred calf safe from the slaughter. As a comedy, it’s pitch black in its sensibilities, and as a social statement, it’s unremittingly brutal and mercilessly accurate. Östlund has produced a film that is both incisive and hilarious while delivering a timely and prescient reality check that more than earned its Palme d’Or win at Cannes earlier this year.
The titular “Square” is an art installation at an uberchic Scandinavian museum, the premise of which is literally a large square on the ground delineating a space in which fundamental human rights are to be observed by all. If the underlying pretension of that notion isn’t obvious enough, it becomes painfully so as the world Östlund unfolds is revealed to be one in which its upper-crust denizens prove routinely oblivious to the plight of those around them. Immaculately dressed museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) vacillates between indifference and passive-aggression when confronted with hordes of beggars and vagrants on the streets of Stockholm, and the one time he goes out of his way to help a stranger, he finds that it was all part of an elaborate scheme to pick his pocket.
This event instigates a comedy of errors that sees Christian’s callous disregard for the well-being of others escalate concurrently with his own need for help from those around him, the comedic propulsion stemming from his perplexed reaction when those needs are either ignored or met ineptly. Oblivious narcissism masked by a phony sense of social justice is the lifeblood of The Square, a film that plays a bit like Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu had it been a Marx Brothers vehicle — the farcical elements are readily apparent even as the subtext becomes increasingly serious.
An ill-advised tryst between Bang’s Christian and an American reporter played with exquisite comedic timing by Elizabeth Moss begins with her live-in chimp painting in the background without the slightest hint of an explanation and ends with a ridiculous tug of war over a used condom that hints at something menacing and animalistic just beneath the film’s surface. This aspect of the absurd reaches its zenith in what is arguably the film’s definitive sequence, in which the museum’s wealthy benefactors participate in an avant-garde performance piece featuring an actor portraying a “wild animal” that terrorizes the guests — until their mob mentality overcomes their faux gentility and true violence ensues.
In a film full of challenging ideas, perhaps the most transgressive moments of The Square occur on the margins — it’s not the surrealism of its broader comedic scenes that carries the heft of its message, but the stubborn refusal of self-awareness that persists in their wake. Östlund’s masterstroke is his ability to create characters who expose their inhumanity to the audience without ever recognizing it themselves. Yes, the world of fine art is a worthy target for ridicule, but it’s the hypocrisy of pseudo-humanists that constitute the real butt of the joke. Rated R for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence. Opens Wednesday, Nov.22 at Grail Moviehouse.