Comedy of frustration takes a darkly satirical turn in “The Square,” the elegant new film by Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund (“Force Majeure”). A sly parable of white privilege brought low, it’s like a cousin of “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” but set in a world of riches and social pretension.
Tall, handsome Christian (Claes Bang) is the director of Stockholm’s X-Royal art museum, where he oversees cutting-edge exhibits such as one that consists of piles of sand arranged in geometric patterns across a floor with a sign reading “You Have Nothing.” While he’s walking to the museum one morning, he’s accosted by a woman who’s being chased by an angry boyfriend and screaming for help; he and another bystander protect the clingy woman from her pursuer and they go their separate ways. But when the incident is over, Christian finds that he’s been denuded of his wallet, phone and cufflinks.
That happens just as Christian is in the middle of preparing for the launch of a socially-conscious new exhibit called The Square, a small spot in the museum’s courtyard identified as a zone of social responsibility and compassionate human contact. Part of the process involves hiring a couple of with-it ad guys to come up with a campaign that will attract public attention to the exhibit.
But Christian’s attention to the campaign is diverted by other emergencies—like one of the sand piles being vacuumed up by a janitor (his solution is just to recover the sand and rebuild the pile without telling anybody)—and by his irritation over being robbed. An aide suggests that he take action when the GPS on his stolen phone shows that it’s now somewhere in a high-rise housing project: he inserts in the mailboxes of each apartment a note accusing the residents of being thieves and demanding his property back. The plan actually works—the phone, wallet and cufflinks are returned anonymously—but as a result of it a young boy shows up demanding an apology for accusing him of stealing (which has brought punishment from his parents). And this is one insistent kid.
Meanwhile Christian runs afoul of an American reporter (Elizabeth Moss) with whom he has a one-night stand after a botched interview in which he’s flummoxed by a question about some gobbledegook in one of his recent catalogues. She’s a forceful sort herself (even engaging in a tug-of-war over the condom he’s used as they argue over who should dispose of it) and proves unwilling to let him get away with using her so cavalierly. She accosts him in the museum, creating an embarrassing scene.
To make matters more fraught, Christian’s position at the museum deteriorates. He arranges a gala fund-raiser in which the dinner guests are confronted by a fellow pretending all too convincingly to b a dangerous primitive, a performance that ends in actual violence. As if that weren’t bad enough, the ad men come up with a video spot that outrages the public and, in turn, leads the governing board to demand his resignation. At a press conference Christian finds that the press is not willing to let him off the hook so easily.
“The Square” is, partially at least, a satire about the world of modern art and the pretentiousness associated with it. But its chief target is Christian—a name that’s admittedly on-the-nose—who represents the cluelessness of liberal-minded individuals who blithely assume that their generalized sympathy for those less fortunate than they and an air of smug self-confidence will carry them through any crisis. Christian is kind of a square himself, and is forced by circumstances to learn that his position is a lot less secure than he thought it was.
“The Square” is filled with oddball asides. When Christian and his assistant go to the high-rise to deliver those accusatory notes, for instance, the aide refuses to go into the building and makes Christian do so himself, remaining in the car—which is promptly assaulted by passersby. And when Christian goes to the reporter’s apartment, he’s bewildered, as we are, by the fact that her roommate is apparently a chimpanzee. Such episodes are unexplained, and keep us as off=balance as Christian is.
They are also played in an extremely deliberate fashion, their extension drawing the picture out to epic length at nearly two-and-a-half hours. But so expert is Ostlund’s sense of control, so right-on Bang’s performance, and so striking the visuals (the cinematography is by Fredrik Wenzel and the production design by Josefin Asberg) that even the longueurs have a certain fascination. “The Square” will make most viewers wonder how much like Christian they are, and leave them feeling uncomfortable at the thought.