Christian (Claes Bang) is the head of a prestigious Swedish art institute which has to think very hard about what it displays in its gallery. Today he is interviewed by an American journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss), who asks him what the biggest challenge about operating the institute is, to which he readily replies "money" since it is at odds with a small group of incredibly rich people who tend to snap up all the best pieces that they cannot afford to collect. But when Anne follows up this question asking Christian to explain the mission statement of the gallery, it would seem this is an even bigger challenge, as he does not make too much sense. But this will be a troublesome day...
Ruben Östlund carried on from his international arthouse hit Force Majeure with this Palme d'Or winner from Cannes, again dividing opinion as to the merits of his work, though this time around it did come across as if he had a shade too much on his plate. It's not that he wasn't clear about his intentions, it's more that there were too many intentions in the first place, and while, if asked, he could tell you everything he meant in each scene, strung together as a two-and-a-half-hour movie the results were closer to a sketch revue than a flowing narrative. Still, many of those sketches, if you liked, were very strong indeed, and displayed a genuine intelligence not like much else.
Certainly not much else in contemporary style, though The Square at least had a precedent in the work of Luis Buñuel, who appeared to be Östlund's spiritual forefather with his interest in the bourgeoisie and sending up social mores with a straight face but a scathing wit. The square of the title was actually based on a real artwork, partly instigated by the director, where the idea was that if you stood inside it you would be duty bound to act benevolently to your fellow human being: whatever they asked for, whatever help they needed, you had to provide it within the best of your means. That was enough for one movie, but this insisted on piling on other themes as well.
For Östlund, as society had grown safer, it had also grown more fearful, though he did not explore the reasons for this addiction to paranoia that dominated the media, an example of the lack of trust we were labouring under. He went about this by presenting some worst nightmare scenarios, nothing fantastical but fairly extreme nonetheless, where trusting someone has led to terrible consequences: for instance, at the start Christian is caught up in a street incident where he and another passerby step in to stop a woman being attacked. Initially, this is a positive experience - he and the passerby make a brief connection of friendship born of getting through this unscathed - but then he realises his phone, wallet and cufflinks are missing as someone has stolen them in the minor fracas.
He does get them back (phones have trackers on them these days), but ah, the consequences as he ends up being hounded by a little boy threatening chaos unless he apologises for wrongly implicating him in the crime. This is to do with regret, as Christian handles this very badly, and again would have been excellent as a film in itself, but you also get him hooking up with Anne who turns out to be a possible nutcase after he has slept with her, and a viral video made to publicise the show that makes the point modern art is forced to be controversial and infuriating to make any impact whatsoever. Then there was the setpiece the poster took its image from, where Terry Notary, motion capture expert extraordinaire, acted like an ape in the polite company of a dinner for that 1% of the wealthiest, which starts out amusing then ends in attempted rape. All powerful, provocative stuff, yet spread out over a series of movies it would have given these aspects space to breathe, yes, this was a long film, and each fresh event offered food for thought, but it was simply too much for one story. Engage with it all and you would not so much be satiated, but overstuffed.
[Curzon's Blu-ray faithfully reproduces the impeccable photography, and has interview featurettes, a casting bit and the trailer as extras.]