Anyone who’s seen modern art gets that it can be absurd. We’ve all heard (or said), “I could do that!” Thus, it makes sense that The Square, a film revolving around a contemporary art museum curator, contains plenty of purposeful absurdities. Gripping and darkly funny, The Square fails to ever coherently say anything, but it is darn fun to watch.
Our protagonist is Christian, a tall, handsome art museum curator confident of himself and his life in Stockholm. He’s busy preparing for a new exhibition centered on a piece called “The Square”, an illuminated 4x4 square carved into the museum’s plaza and representing a space that serves as a sanctuary where anyone who enters it is obligated to help or be helped by others. As happens in films, things unravel from there. Christian tries to help a screaming woman escape her abusive boyfriend, only to find that the whole thing was a set-up and his phone and wallet are gone. A viral marketing video for the exhibition goes terribly wrong. We see cracks in Christian’s smooth facade.
In director Ruben Ostlund’s hands, everyday scenes often feel threatening. Ostlund ramp up the tension only to eventually cut it with dark humor. For instance, the staged domestic abuse crisis feels incredibly visceral and dangerous, only to find out it was all a clever ruse. Christian gets threatened by a stranger via letter, only for the writer to be much less threatening in person. What you end up with is a film that feels unpredictable and incredibly captivating to watch.
The Square weaves in the absurdity of the art world with the absurdity of everyday life. In the contemporary art world, of course the director wears sleek outfits and has her Italian greyhound follow her constantly. Christian stumbles when he has to explain his artspeak (a panel on how exhibit spaces exhibit space) to an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss). A cleaner accidentally alters a work of art composed of piles of rocks when he vacuums up some of the rocks. With transition scenes full of homeless people on the streets, it further emphasizes how silly this world is, this world pretending to be about Art but really about money and power, just like everything else.
Because we follow Christian through so many situations, we get to meet a truly incredible ensemble of characters. Moss’s American journalist Anne, like Christian, feels both self-assured and cripplingly insecure, eventually having a one-night stand with the curator, leading to a tense discussion about a used condom and the discovery that Anne has a chimpanzee living with her. (The chimpanzee’s presence is never explained.) Dominic West plays an artist whose talk keeps getting interrupted by a man with Tourette’s. Christian’s coworker Michael (Christopher Laesso), plays a young IT guy who clearly just wants to bask in Christian’s coolness, only to turn quiet coward when the going gets tough. Two millennial-hipster stereotypes working as PR agents for the museum become so obsessed with turning the exhibition into a viral hit, they create a violent video that involves blowing up a blonde girl, which then (expectedly) blows up in their and Christian’s faces.
Full of lush cinematography and interesting vignettes, The Square tries to do too much and ends up feeling disjointed and incoherent. Perhaps there’s a message in there about free speech, wealth, art, class differences, etc., but it gets lost in the bloated 2-plus hour runtime. Couple that with so many hanging plot threads, and by the time The Square ends, you feel as lost as you do at a contemporary art exhibition.