You couldn’t pick an easier subject to satirize than the world of modern art (save, perhaps, for the contemporary fashion industry), but Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’or-winning The Square is an (mostly) on-target, and frequently hilarious comedy that holds viewers in its giddy grasp despite a lengthy 142-minute running time.
Swedish actor Claes Bang, a dead ringer for Gregory Peck, stars as Christian, curator at a museum of modern art that has overtaken the Royal Palace in Stockholm. The museum competes with rich private collectors to provide the best of the modern art world to the city’s denizens, he explains to a foreign journalist (Elisabeth Moss of Mad Men and The Handmaid’s Tale) at the beginning of the movie.
The best of the modern art world includes, for instance, an exhibit entitled Mirrors and Piles of Gravel – which is, literally, piles of rubble on the floor – and a minor situation enues when a cleaner accidentally sweeps up some of the rocks.
We’ve all seen takes on modern art like this before – and even read about real-world instances where a janitor unwittingly cleans up an art installation designed to resemble trash on the floor – but Östlund has a keen eye that lightly sends up the material while still granting it some austerity. This kind of softball satire isn’t for everyone, but I found it often laugh-out-loud funny.
In the film’s standout scene – predominantly featured in posters and in trailers – actor Terry Notary plays an artist invading an elegant dinner party and its unwitting guests during a “show”. Notary played King Kong in Skull Island and Rocket in the recent Planet of the Apes films via motion capture, and offers up the same kind of animalistic performance in live action here as he mercilessly intimidates and molests upper-class art patrons.
It’s a brilliant, surreal little segment worthy of Luis Buñuel, and the best scene in a film filled with memorable moments.
In another, The Wire’s Dominic West plays an artist being interviewed by a moderator (Annica Liljeblad) during a serious discussion about art that keeps being interrupted by a member of the audience with Tourette’s Syndrome. While thoughtfully handled by the filmmakers, director Östlund never loses sight of the inherent awkwardness of the situation.
And then there’s the titular Square, a 4-meter-by-4-meter square on the floor intended to serve as “sanctuary of trust and caring,” inside of which everyone shares “equal rights and obligations.” If you’re inside of the Square, you’re obliged to assist others with whatever they need, and able to request assistance yourself. I actually found the exhibit to be quite genuine, and free from the biting satire with which the director observes most of the rest of the movie.
Despite top billing, English-speaking actors West, Moss, and Notary have relatively few scenes; the primary focus here is Bang and his Swedish co-stars as the faces behind the museum and its exhibits. In these scenes, the director widens his focus to tackle some larger topics, such as homelessness and class strife.
When Christian’s phone and wallet is stolen by grifters in broad daylight – another memorable sequence – his attempts to retrieve it are both successful and unfortunate, and a series of mistakes are made. And while he’s distracted, a young marketing agency creates a PR nightmare for the museum.
Much of The Square is a series of loosely-connected vignettes, but when the vignettes are this good it’s hard to complain. The first 90 minutes of the film, however, work a lot better than the rather dour final act; when the film shifts focus from the easy target of modern art to more pointed issues, it isn’t always as successful.
Still, The Square is easily one of the finest comedies of the year, and despite the long running time it’s a rare art film that should be accessible to most audiences. Along with last year’s Toni Erdmann, from director Maren Ade, it’s a high-profile comedy that brings a welcome dose of levity to Cannes and other film festivals.
Screened in Prague as part of this year’s Be2Can film festival, The Square will see wide release in the Czech Republic from October 12. Note, however, that despite the presence of some English-speaking actors, the movie is predominantly in Swedish.