Scott Reviews Ruben Östlund’s The Square [Theatrical Review]

It would perhaps be too far to say all films with a polemic angle deal in loneliness, but neither too does it seem completely off base. I’ve been on a bit of a Godard kick this year, especially the late-60s stuff, and for as interested as he could be in group dynamics in the ongoing revolution, his films also tended to end on the suggestion that revolution only comes because the systems have abandoned us. That’s a terribly lonely place to be. The Square deals not with revolution, but with a man at the head of an institution who sees everything he controls turned against him. Writer/director Ruben Östlund’s critique comes out with a bit of pleasure at watching him squirm.

As the curator of a modern art museum in Stockholm, Christian’s (Claes Bang) responsibilities are both all-encompassing and not exactly specified. He chooses the art and how much of the museum’s resources can be directed towards attaining it, of course, but he’s also, for all intents and purposes, the face of the institution. He gives interviews, solicits donations, gives presentations, and works through marketing ideas. Everything he does has to reflect the museum. So when his wallet and phone is stolen one day, it hasn’t happened only to him. Nor, indeed, is his own pursuit of justice only his. He recognizes that, to a degree, but is too far afield from his home base to see how stranded he is.

The museum puts him amidst society people, and mostly older people at that. Whoever stole his phone and wallet is younger, poor, and perhaps a little desperate. “I might be recognized,” he declares before venturing into an apartment complex to root out his belongings. But whoever might recognize him probably doesn’t live there.

All bubbles are, to a degree, self-created. We see him regularly pass beggars on the street, taking notice only at his convenience. But as his pursuit of justice for his fallen wallet goes on, his social conscience expands, until he, under duress, has assumed more social responsibility than he can reasonably burden. And here’s where the movie gets a little tricky. Because he’s not taking that much on himself. His wokeness, so to speak, is only a smidge more open by the end than it was at the beginning. And yet still the movie asks, truly, what is one man to do.

It’s at its best at its shallowest, watching the more public outlets for Christian’s gradual downfall. Östlund’s last film, the excellent and widely-heralded Force Majeure, dealt more explicitly with the way small impulses can have catastrophic personal consequences, a theme he builds on here. Even with a bigger canvas to play with, he still finds very interesting ways to draw out the tension. The film’s two standout scenes both use the museum background as a way to force confrontation. First, a pile of chairs seeming on the verge of collapse underscore the discomfort between Christian and his one-night stand Anne (Elisabeth Moss); later, a performance artist (Terry Notary) takes his charge to entertain a donor’s dinner far past the extreme. Both bring the film’s disparate concerns – Christian’s difficulty relating to people on a personal level, modern art criticism, and aesthetic imagination – together in really lovely ways.

Whether such standout scenes will carry you through the film’s two-and-a-half-hour runtime is between you and your god. I came away mostly positive on it, a little puzzled, but at least a little glad for a film to leave me so uncertain as to its value. I couldn’t help but feel a bit like I’d encountered one of the pieces the film highlights, like the pile of chairs or the dirt mounds or the projection of the guy just growling, all of which are very much like what one sees in such museums. It’s clever, and it’s imaginative, and its simplicity and straightforwardness of purpose is stark and refreshing in its own way. But if there’s a depth of feeling, I don’t understand it.

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