** (out of 4)
Last May, the movie world got its second big surprise of the year (after this one) when Pedro Almodóvar announced the winners of the 70th Cannes Film Festival. The film taking home the Palme d’Or turned out to be neither Happy End (from Michael Haneke, the Austrian director who’s become a fixture of the event) nor BPM (the gay-rights movie that left Almodóvar bawling). Instead, the prize went to Ruben Östlund’s The Square, a film that follows an art museum curator’s (named Christian, played by Claes Bang) hapless attempts to both recover his stolen wallet and oversee marketing efforts for the titular special exhibition. If critics were mostly stunned, Östlund – a director who just broke into the international movie scene three years ago with Force Majeure – was simply blown away.
In many ways, the prestigious honor was timely – because The Square, if nothing else, does a marvelous job capturing the absurdist bent of recent social developments. The exhibition Christian seeks to publicize, after all, turns out to be an asinine attempt to promote wishy-washy ideals (“social harmony,” “universal equality”) that have been embraced by increasingly prominent far-left leaders around the globe. And in the film’s unending mockery of its “educated” artist characters – in one particularly memorable scene, a man uses a string of vulgar interjections to heckle two artists giving a talk; said artists hide their discomfort behind platitudes about “free speech” – Östlund perfectly captures the essence of 2016, a year in which experts found themselves powerless to counter the rise of Trumpist, anti-PC boorishness. Whether it intends to or not, The Square provides a resonant, painfully relevant portrayal of both the triumph of demagoguery and traditional authority’s simultaneous impotence.
And yet…even if Östlund captures the discordant sociopolitical climate of our time with remarkable skill, his overall work still suffers from three major flaws. Start from its tonal unevenness. For most of the film, the characters we see on screen are not so much people as caricatures – deliberately exaggerated portraits of stuffed-up elites Östlund (and we, for that matter) can’t help but deride. The story around them, meanwhile, leaps back and forth between sexual, social, and political humor; eventually, it culminates in a marvelous dinner-party sequence that recalls Luis Buñuel in its disquieting absurdity. Yet after this sequence, Östlund suddenly decides to make a complete U-turn and spend 40 minutes humanizing Christian. Far from being the butt of every joke, in other words, Christian abruptly turns into a flawed, earnest father you ought to feel sorry for, a human being you simply have to pity. Needless to say, Östlund’s burst of piety throws both you and the story for a loop.
The second problem with The Square, meanwhile, concerns the disingenuousness of its intentions. Its story seeks to critique its characters’ superficial insistence on always looking dignified, and for the most part, it approaches this task with savage gusto. Yet in his attempts to make this critique resonate with the audience, Östlund persistently exploits many people’s equally superficial, social-media-fueled tendency to dismiss anything that’s not immediately comprehensible as “pretentious” mumbo-jumbo. (Thus why sites like this one have proved so popular.) Simply put, in deriding his characters’ superficial, ego-boosting behavior, Östlund unrepentantly capitalizes on the audience’s own superficial, ego-boosting desire to be told that it’s okay not to be educated…‘cause educated people are stupid anyway. In a sense, he thus underhandedly appeals to the very traits he otherwise deplores – and as funny as the result may be, his satirical ambitions eventually prove just as unknowingly self-absorbed as his characters.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem with The Square is that it’s not as biting as it could be. In Force Majeure, after all, Östlund’s satire didn’t stop at ripping apart its characters; it also goaded its viewers into thinking about the fragility of their own relationships, and that’s what made it so powerful. The Square does occasionally attempt to push you towards self-examination, especially at the end. But for whatever reason, Östlund (like Noah Baumbach in The Meyerowitz Stories) never feels comfortable lingering on such moments: if anything, he usually tries to undercut them with distracting gags, as though he were afraid of the serious direction they’re taking the movie in. And when you look beyond these pseudo-reflective moments, you’ll find an overall story so focused on ridiculing its characters’ shallowness that you spend all your energy doing the same; rarely do you ever feel compelled to ask whether their flaws are like your own.
None of this is to suggest that The Square is dull or worthless. On the contrary: thanks to Östlund’s snarky sense of humor, the film feels far shorter and more dynamic than its weighty 2.5-hour running time would otherwise suggest. Even if you think you ought to know better, after all, it’s fun to make fun of others, and The Square does so with exceptional aplomb. But whenever it comes to turning the jokes into something more substantial – turning the jokes into something that’ll stay with you after you leave the theater, in other words – The Square proves deficient, negligent, and at times just plain old unwilling. And at the end of the day, that’s why this upset Palme d’Or honoree is likely going to leave you rather disappointed.
The Square (2017)
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary
Running Time: 142 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence.”
Produced by: Erik Hemmendorff, Philippe Bober
Written and Directed by: Ruben Östlund