Ruben Ostlund made audiences – and in particular men – squirm with wicked brilliance in his breakthrough film, Force Majeure, and he’s back again with a film that is even more political and one which will have audiences laughing riotously but also seriously, seriously uncomfortably.
The Square takes its name from an art project launching in a Swedish museum. The museum’s chief curator is Christian, a handsome, affluent pseudo-intellectual with a ‘statement scarf’. The catalyst for The Square‘s primary dramatic thread comes from an incident in which Christian’s wallet and phone are stolen as he’s on his way to work. In a similar fashion to Force Majeure, it is not so much the event itself that causes the drama that unfolds, but the way in which our central character deals with it.
Along the way Ostlund skewers the art world, the fragility of a certain type of masculinity in modern society and the way in which we abuse those around us in active and in passive ways. It all sounds a bit heady laid out so plainly, and it is, but it’s also an incredibly funny film. Ostlund has a real skill for eking the maximum amount of humour out of the most minimal of set-ups and it’s a marvel to witness at times. And scenes – even the funniest ones – play out with a mastery of suspense.
The film’s jaw-dropping centre piece in which an art project goes wrong – or so very right depending on your outlook – is the most tense experience I’ve had in a cinema this year.
Even a sequence in which two characters discuss a night they shared together is filled with so much tension that you can almost see crackles and sparks of electricity. And the film’s jaw-dropping centre piece in which an art project goes wrong – or so very right depending on your outlook – is the most tense experience I’ve had in a cinema this year.
The scene features a performance artist – played by the exceptional mo-cap performer Terry Notary – terrorising museum guests at a dinner party, at first in a way that they seem happy to be involved in, but as the events escalate they seem desperate to escape from. What’s so fascinating in this scene is how, plausibly, the guest retreat into themselves and don’t want to get involved, even choosing to look down at the table when sexual assault begins to occur. Ostlund directs all of this in such a way that the escalation and the reactions feel genuine and all the more alarming as a result, with every detail in the scene playing an important part. From the camerawork that never interferes and through us out of the film to the way in which every actor – there are perhaps fifty extras involved – seems to react in a natural way (within the logic of the film) and all at the same time.
It’s a remarkable scene and a perfect example of Ostlund’s unique skill for acidic tightrope walks through murky moral situations. It is also a prime example of one of The Square‘s slight flaws, in that it stands out as one scene, albeit an extraordinary one, rather than an extraordinary scene that feels part of a whole. The Square is really rather baggy and in a way it never really coalesces in a way that would make it a more satisfying overall experience. When The Square is good though, it’s phenomenal, eviscerating the way in which we abuse those around us both actively and passively, and making the convincing case that we’ve casually slid towards a rather deplorable culture of selfishness and neglect for those around us. Angry, funny and brilliant, The Square is an extraordinary film that’s hard to forget.