Sweden / Denmark / France / Germany
Director: Ruben Ostlund
Runtime: 142 minutes
Language: Swedish / English / Danish
Mostlyindies.com grading: A
Every year the New York Film Festival outdoes itself in its selection. At first perusal, their Main Slate looked good but nothing to write home about; however, as I go deeper and deeper into their selected films I discover new, automatic classics and lightning bolts of cinematic wonder that strikes at the deepest places that we wouldn’t as quasi normal, functional beings who walk the Earth. even dare to acknowledge. Case in point is Ruben Ostlund’s follow up to his 2014 movie Force Majeure, The Square, which made its debut September 30 at the Lincoln Center, is a blow to the face, a time bomb waiting to explode, and a wicked portrayal of human foibles that only exacerbate the vast chasm between the classes. It is, as a matter of fact, a sharp social observation about the concept of compassion and empathy towards others in a critical tile masquerading as an absurd art concept.
How long will it take for people to respond to help when someone is in need? The Square gives you no clear answers, but presents you several studies in the form of loosely connected vignettes that are tied together by the object that forms the title of the movie. You see, The Square as a concept by Argentinean artist Lola Arias is a safe space, a place that unites, that has no boundaries or agendas. That sounds great in theory, but then, when you see that the art curator at the center of the story, Christian (Claes Bang) witnesses a woman crying for help, he and another man don’t quite do anything other than wait until she’s in the frame literally shrieking her head off that her boyfriend will kill her. Even then there’s clearly some reticence in Christian to do anything, and once the boyfriend appears — a musclebound lunk who could easily take both men out — the scene is over, the boyfriend, surprisingly, walks away, leaving the woman to also go on her own way, relieved but terrified.
And then Christian realizes, once he’s smugly convinced himself that He Did Something . . . that he in fact has been punked. He’s got no phone and no wallet. Not even, it seems, his shirt cuff-links. When it’s his turn to ask for help, as handsome and dashing as he is, he gets to taste a little of that helplessness. But instead of canceling his phone and his plastic he decides to play some kind of dirty prank to the people who stole his personal identifiers: he types a nasty letter, has a colleague drive him to the projects where the phone is located, and drop in each slot the typed note with the hopes of scaring the person shitless and getting his phone and wallet delivered to a Seven-Eleven. Surprisingly, he does get his items back, and in the interim, plays a very giving man and lands several bills, intact, on a homeless woman’s lap.
In the middle of all this two colleagues are planning to use the Lola Arias installation to create a video that will garner cheap views and go viral. The video is quite the controversial piece, and let’s just say that it does create the desired effect of going viral but for all the wrong reasons. While all this is happening, we see another artist (Dominic West) being interrupted by a man suffering from Tourette’s who’s catcalls all but stop the show cold. We also see a young reporter, Anna (Elizabeth Moss), who after conducting what has to be the clumsiest interview ever at the very opening of the film later appears at a disco, seducing Christian and bringing him to her place where they enact one of the funniest sex scenes I’ve seen, and that later turns into something else when she practically stonewalls him for the sole purpose of finding out if he was into her as she was into him. My only explanation of her character was to perhaps enhance the eventual unlike-ability of Christian who from the word go is the privileged white male with an easy life and looks he uses to bed women left and right. That unlike-ability eventually comes out full force in a later scene when the prank letter he’d sent to the project comes back to haunt him, badly, under the person of a young immigrant Middle Eastern boy.
If Ruben Ostlund wanted to really stick it to the upper class he could have trimmed The Square just a tiny little bit and focus more on the peripheral character of Oleg (Terry Notary), a performer who mimes gorillas (Notary has played gorillas before in Kong: Skull Island and War for the Planet of the Apes) who himself is a piece of art early on in the movie, but later comes out at the middle of a dinner scene where the elite sit, and in his ape-persona, starts acting more and more belligerent until we go from laughing, to laughing while squirming a little, to all but looking in rising horror at just how far the act goes, again blurring the lines of art and reality. You may as well say, that perhaps there are no safe places, and anyone might be a victim who might not get the help he or she needs.
The Square will release in US theaters October 27.