OnScreen Review: 'The Square'

Noah Golden

  • OnScreen Film Critic

Much like the contemporary art on display at the X-Royal gallery, Swedish-important “The Square” has some piercing and smart commentary about modern society, the art world and post-Facebook marketing. But the kernels of keen observation are buried beneath a frustrating, meandering, grating, glib slog of a film that almost never pays off in the way you want it to. In that sense, “The Square” is the most infuriating kind of film in that it isn’t a mindless cash-grab or a dumb, uncultured comedy. It isn’t directed by a talentless hack or feature inept performers. No, “The Square” is so infuriating because it has all of the right ingredients. The plot and themes show promise, the director Ruben Östlund has a good eye and its cast is fully convicting. Yet simmered together, the resulting dish is scattershot and acrid-tasting. More than any movie I have seen this year, the 2.5 hour “The Square” was an exercise in patience.

The episodic film begins with museum curator Christian (Claes Bang), a slick businessman always dressed in a sharp suit, walking through the streets of Stockholm and pointedly ignoring the beggars and do-gooders asking for money. Yes, “The Square” is that clunky and heavy-handed right from the opening credits. Before he can get to work, Christian has his phone, wallet and cufflinks stolen by a pair of con artists on the street. That act of vandalism kickstarts one part of this shaggy dog story. Instead of going to the police, Christian, with the help of a nervous colleague, tracks down the thieves to a public housing apartment building where he leaves threatening notes in every unit’s mail slot. Repercussions from that act follow him throughout the film, concluding in a messy (and implausible) altercation with a pre-teen boy.

The other main thread revolves around a new art installation at his gallery. The Square is a tiled rectangle flanked by glowing lights. At the base is a sign reading: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” This piece, made by a well-respected artist, is going to be the focus of the museum’s upcoming gala. Other main exhibits include a room filled with purposeful piles of debris and a giant, wall-sized video screen projecting a shirtless man (Terry Notary) grunting ferally into the camera. Yes, both are ham-fisted parodies of modern art, but at least the dust pile exhibit delivered what was the film’s only real laugh. When the nightly cleaning crew come to vacuum, the results are disastrous.

Eventually, the human ape makes an in-person experience during the fancy opening night dinner. The scene is clearly presented as the crowning jewel of the film and the culmination of themes Östlund has thus forth spelled out – the hypocrisy of the “open minded liberal,” the nihilistic urge buried beneath our niceties, the outrageous lengths art will go to for attention. In one long, excruciating scene, Notary’s Man Ape does a performance art piece that begins with him grunting menacingly at the posh diners and ends with him assaulting a woman in what looks like a simulated rape scene. Like much of “The Square,” the scene is Östlund trying to be button-pushing and thought-provoking. No doubt the scene is meant to be polarizing and provocative and darkly satirical. But it’s so drawn out and illogical that the meaning and shock value is lost.

There are, however, a few glimmers of a competent film in “The Square.” Elisabeth Moss is wonderful as an American reporter who ends up in bed with Christian. Their scenes together – especially a surprising bit of physical comedy involving a condom – have a fizzy chemistry and comedic verve sorely missing from much of the film. Alternately, material involving two out of touch digital marketers (and their horrendously miscalculated “viral video”) struck the right note of barbed parody.

But, more often than not, “The Square” is a dull, over-thought, languid film filled with unlikable, unrealistic people. The Square may be a sanctuary of trust and caring, so I care enough about our OnStage readers to recommend you find something better to watch.

Rating 0.5 out of 5 stars

Note: I saw “The Square” as a member of The Cinema Club at the Madison Arts Cinema. The Club, which takes place at eight cities nationwide, offers members screenings of yet-to-be-released independent or foreign films along with discussions lead by film scholars and critics. “The Square” is currently playing film festivals with a limited release planned later this Fall.