Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund first achieved international acclaim with his withering wintry take on middle-class masculinity in Force Majeure, causing quite a stir when it showed three years ago here in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.
Now competing in the main competition, his new film The Square is a grander and more ambitious project, moving from the airlessness proximity of family on a ski holiday to the Stockholm art world and ‘society’ in general. Claes Bang plays Christian, a gallery curator with the slightly worn looks of an underwear model who’s been moved to woollens. Imagine Rupert Everett dipped in Gary Oldman. He is competent at his work though way too cool to ever show any enthusiasm. When interviewed by an American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), he wearily trots out his spiel but he is adept at the office politics and gets by on his powdery charm.
Just as Force Majeure revolved around a freak incident and the reactions of those involved, so The Square sees Christian’s life disturbed when he is the victim of a crime. However, whereas the earlier film centred on an act of cowardice, The Square actually sees Christian behave with something like bravery. But in Östlund-land, you just can’t win. With a surgical precision and a surgeon’s indifference, Christian’s life and the world around him is thinly and often hilariously dissected. Indeed, the first hour and a half play like something Haneke and Roy Anderson might have produced if they’d ever got drunk together.
The liberal excesses of the art world might seem like an easy target, but Östlund hits enough bulls-eyes and with such elan that it doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s the meeting with an ad firm whose pony-tailed boss carts a new born baby around like an accessory or a one-night stand with Anne plus unexplained chimpanzee are just two of the many highlights. In the background the modern art exhibits are lifelessly bland, with titles such as ‘Mirrors and Piles of Gravel’, always in danger of being destroyed by an unwitting cleaner and the patrons and art lovers are well-meaning cultural types who stampede to the free buffet.
A new installation is on its way, a square which will represent a space of trust and safety where “all have equal rights and equals obligations”. Squares are glimpsed throughout the film – outside the plaza railway station, or the gymnast’s mat in a gym – suggesting that this space is actually the film itself, firing its ire at all. Unfortunately, The Square bloats into something more like an oblong. With the emphasis on the long. And it’s in the last half that Östlund’s thumb on the scales begins to leave a print. A performance art piece at a high-end dinner gets out of hand in a way that beggars credibility and the weirdness of earlier scenes curdles into a Buñuel-like surrealism.
The pummelling of liberal guilt and hypocrisy also feels badly timed in the age that coined “libtard” and Christian himself seems to behave inconsistently almost as if he is doing so at the behest of some point the director wants to make, rather than from motivations of character. There is much to enjoy here – especially at the beginning – and Östlund’s ambition and vision are to be applauded. However, The Square would have been greatly improved had the director taken his scalpel and his demanding critical eye and applied it to the film itself.