‘The Square’ is Provocative Art About Provocative Art

The Cannes winner from 'Force Majeure' director Ruben Östlund asks uncomfortable questions, uncomfortably.

“The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” reads the plaque. “Within it, we all have equal rights and obligations.” The Square is cut out of the brick in front of the X-Royal, a museum of modern and contemporary art in Stockholm – a museum that sits nearly empty most days, and only really comes to life in the evening, at private events for its many donors and benefactors. And the marketing people they’ve hired for the Square don’t see an easy way to sell this “trust and caring” thing: “To get journalists to write about it,” they insist, “you need some kind of controversy.” (Other suggestions at this brainstorming meeting are along the lines of “How about doing something like the Ice Bucket Challenge?”) So they create a controversy. Do they ever.

That’s your logline for The Square, the Cannes Film Festival-winning satire-of-discomfort from writer/director Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure), but there’s much more going on than that. First and foremost, the film is a character study of Christian (Claes Bang), the museum’s chief curator, who’s a bit of a twit and yet oddly sympathetic. We first see him being interviewed by a not-terribly-skilled American journalist (Elisabeth Moss), proving his gifts at talking a lot and saying very little; we next see him in the men’s room, carefully rehearsing his extemporaneous “speaking from the heart” remarks for a museum event. Shortly thereafter he’s pick-pocketed and decides to take action, sending the film down some weird rabbit holes; you’re not quite sure where Östlund is going, but there’s a feeling of waiting for bad things to happen, of this privileged figure about to spring in the wrong direction, that’s oddly unsettling (and somewhat similar to The Killing of a Sacred Deer earlier this month).

Moss appears in less of the film than you might hope, but it’s a marvelously eccentric and awkward performance; there’s something just perfect about the way, in that interview, she interrupts him with her next question before he even finishes answering the first one. They end up in bed later (of course), in one of the most refreshingly ugly sex scenes I’ve ever seen – but that’s got nothing on the discomfort of their conversation in his workplace days after, a scene so keenly observed, it’s nerve-fraying.

But the movie is filled with tiny, resonant details: an online description of a museum event that’s a spot-on recreation of arts marketing gibberish, an interview with a visiting artist (Dominic West) that has such figures’ double-talk down cold, the way a YouTube rep who calls Christian about a viral video explains, “I haven’t seen the clip myself. I don’t work with content.” (The indisputable silliness of this world requires just the slightest twist to become satire.) Östlund frames these events in his deadpan visual style – there’s something Nordic about it, as it seems at least somewhat inspired by Roy Andersson’s – and lays in a soothing score that seems, in spots, to all but mock the audience.

Östlund can be as much a sociologist (or, frankly, anthropologist) as a filmmaker; he delights in placing his characters in uncomfortable social situations, and watching them squirm (or not). They’re not big on introspection; there’s a moment where Christian seems right on the verge of admitting a the bare minimum of prejudice and privilege, confessing, “These negative expectations say something about me,” before correcting himself: “…say something about our society.” He shifts blame the very moment he accepts it.

But Östlund won’t let his characters get away with that. There’s a remarkable scene, at a fancy benefit event, in which an artist comes into the dining room doing a bit of “wild animal” performance art, complete with opening announcement (“You can hide in the herd, safe in the knowledge that someone else will be the prey”). At first, the patrons chuckle at his howling and intimidation, amused and “involved.” But the scene is an unexpected powder keg, as it becomes clear the artist isn’t playing around, and won’t be persuaded to. And there, Östlund gets at the what makes a movie like The Square seem even more provocative than it is: We love the idea that art should be confrontational. But we don’t really like to be confronted by it.

“The Square” is out Friday in limited release.