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‘The Square’ Review: Östlund’s Palme d’Or Winner Disappoints

Paling in comparison to his previous film, Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner underwhelms.
By  · Published on May 31st, 2017

Paling in comparison to his previous film, Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winner underwhelms.

There’s a great film somewhere in Ruben Östlund’s The Square. I’d even argue that somewhere, in the film’s two-and-a-half hours, that there are shadows of a masterpiece. The greatest moments within The Square come in the form of a series of vignettes littered throughout. These moments of aching comedy and biting satire are unfortunately slowed down by a longer narrative, which by the film’s conclusion becomes utterly tedious. Three performers – Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, and Terry Notary – receive top billing during the film’s opening credits. The scenes featuring the respective actors are pretty brilliant, but their culminated screen time clocks in at under thirty minutes. So, what’s going on for other two hours? Billed under these three is Danish actor Claes Bang, who is incredible in carrying much of the film’s dead weight on his shoulders.

Bang stars as Christian, the curator for a well regarded – yet sparsely attended – Swedish museum showcasing modern and contemporary art. Interests in the museum have begun to dwindle. Christian can rely on a few dozen mostly elderly patrons for financial support, yet the museum’s halls are often empty. With the arrival of a new installation entitled, “The Square,” Christian hopes to reinvigorate interest. He has teamed with a new PR firm with unconventional methods to bring excitement for the project. So what exactly is “The Square”? Well, it’s kind of hard to explain. It is indeed a physical space housed outside of the museum, along with an installation within. “The Square” seeks to force participants, and witnesses, to question their moral code, to examine how they consider the strangers who surround them. Does that make sense? Probably not. So you’ll just have to see the film to find out, should you be so curious.

Early in the film, Christian finds himself in an altercation that forces him into similar territories as his upcoming exhibit. On his way to work, Christian’s commute is interrupted by a woman yelling frantically for help. He comes to the woman’s aide, easily fighting off a male aggressor. Moments after high-fiving a fellow pedestrian for a job well done, Christian realizes he has been the victim of a scam; the seemingly desperate woman has made off with his wallet, cellphone, and cufflinks. Along with co-worker Michael (a scene-stealing Christopher Læssø), Christian embarks on a grueling – for both character and audience – journey to retrieve his belongings.

The Square has a lot to say. It’s part social commentary, part black comedy, and entirely bonkers. There is some smart satire at play here, so why is it so testing to endure? Ruben Östlund obviously has quite a lot to say about the limits and designations of art, yet it becomes evident that he does not know exactly how to say it. His last film, Force Majeure, was a pointed takedown of masculinity within the family dynamic. It was darkly hilarious and to the point. There are shades of that brilliance here. One standout moment finds Christian and Elizabeth Moss’ Anne fighting over a used condom. Another features a piece of performance art in which Terry Notary terrorizes a group of donors at a fundraiser. It is after this climactic moment that the film takes a nosedive, grueling on for another thirty minutes after very clearly making its point.

I wanted to adore The Square. There are so many brilliant moments easy to recount when discussing the film with others. But to tie an arch or reason to these moments proves impossible. Ruben Östlund is orchestrating many exciting thoughts throughout, yet they just do not come together to create a cohesive whole. Ultimately, The Square proves to be a frustrating experience, sprinkled with moments of glory.

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Toronto-based cinephile who especially enjoys French films.