Review: Ruben Östlund's 'The Square' Throws Sharp Elbows At The Art World

What is it they say about "best laid plans"? Christian (Claes Bang) wants to be a good person, he tries very hard to be. But he isn't. He's quite terrible, actually. And in Reuben Östlund's scathing, sharp-elbowed The Square he's bad at being good a lot. It's just not in his nature, but then it isn't really in ours, either.

After taking home the Jury Prize at Cannes for his sharply observant Force Majeure, Östlund is back to skewer the elite's moral superiority in The Square, a barbed takedown of their high-minded liberal notions of compassion and integrity. Hypocrites, all of 'em. Set in Sweden's rather exclusive art world community, the film largely focuses on Christian, a suave, sophisticated stuffed shirt and hairdo who curates a fictional museum in Stockholm. It's the kind of place where you'd go to see an exhibition from some thinker/artist who posits that their mound of dirt can change the world. Literally, the museum has an exhibit that is just piles of dirt, and what a bitch it is to manage apparently. Christian has his orderly life exactly as he wants it: work, fatherhood, personal relationships, all neatly curated to exactly his liking. Emotions don't really factor in.

He's a total phony, of course. This is a guy who practices speeches in which he pretends to fold up his notes and speaks from the heart. He's sympathetic...sort of. Ethically and morally dubious, completely unaware of the gargantuan size of his ego, Christian is the classic snob in a stylish man scarf.  He is white privilege personified, but underneath it is the mind of a grunting, drooling nitwit.

There are many movies that aim to be both funny and philosophically astute, and most tend to be wild misfires. The Square isn't one of them, and while its laughs are more of the "ah ha" variety, they come in droves and from unexpected angles. Östlund wisely unleashes his attack from a multitude of vantage points, hitting the media, art criticism, viral marketing, pop culture...nothing is spared. Corporate double-speak is a prime target, with Christian the embodiment of the mumbo-jumbo spewed to make digestible soundbyte. In an interview with quirky reporter Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who confesses to knowing little about art, Christian babbles enough word salad to make Sarah Palin jealous, all in defense of an illogical blurb he wrote about a "Non-Exhibition/Exhibition".

While Östlund's commentary is sharper than a scalpel, he balances it skillfully with broad comedy laced with deeper context. In arguably the movie's most unforgettable scene on a visual level, a performance artist (played by famed movement coach Terry Notary) bumrushes an extravagant dinner party with an angry ape routine that is both hilarious and terrifying. Östlund's obsession with man and its primal kin extends further, as Christian's romantic fling with Anne is disrupted by her pet chimpanzee.

Östlund has a lot to get off his chest, and at times it seems like too much. This isn't a movie for those with a dwindling attention span; every scene has a meaning and an idea that Östlund is trying to impart. When targeted at the art scene and its institutions, he's always on point. Not so much when his targets are lower on the totem pole, like the homeless (Who are everywhere and always demanding something) or the infirm. In one baffling, overlong scene Dominic West plays a pretentious artist giving a lecture that is repeatedly interrupted by a man in the crowd with Tourette's syndrome.  As it drones on we become as uncomfortable as the audience, and while I get that's exactly what Östlund wants it doesn't feel as natural as his biting critiques.

The Square is as witty as it is abrasive, as smart as it is funny. Östlund artfully tears away at the fabric of civility we cloak ourselves in and reveals the baser creatures underneath it, dying to get out.

Rating: 4 out of 5