The Square is a sly social satire that demands patience from its audience, but like last year’s Toni Erdmann, there are ample rewards for those who stay the course. If you saw Swedish writer-director Ruben Östland’s previous film, Force Majeure, you may recognize his mordant sense of humor: it’s bone-dry but hard to resist.
Claes Bang plays a museum curator who’s not a bad person but makes some bad decisions. From a chance encounter with a pickpocket to a clash with a homeless person, he suffers a seemingly endless series of slings and arrows—the kind that could happen to any of us if we were careless at just the wrong moment. Whether it’s driving his expensive car to a dodgy neighborhood or having sex with a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who has a hidden agenda, Bang can’t seem to do anything that doesn’t have dire consequences.
Östlund also takes the opportunity to poke fun at the art world and its pretensions, from an exhibition that creates jarring sounds but goes unexplained to a piece of “performance art” that leaves its audience horrified. The title of the film refers to a space that is supposed to represent an oasis from the tumult of the outside world, yet our hero finds no escape from predicaments large and small. Cutting-edge art is often controversial and leads to troubling questions about freedom of expression. When Bang delegates decision-making to members of his staff he is the one who has to defend the results.
I wish The Square was shorter, but its major set pieces are brilliant. They have so much to say about how we see each other in this confusing modern world that I recommend the film, even though the parts are greater than the whole. Ruben Östlund is a keen observer of humanity and a master satirist.