There are many delicious ironies inside and encircling The Square, the cringingly funny new comedy by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, not least of which is that it won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Cannes is a place both magical and insane, a hotspot of global prestige where for two weeks each May, aspirations of important, global cinematic art mingle with crass elitism, conspicuous consumption, and institutional absurdity. So where better to celebrate the story of Christian (Claes Bang), the anti-hero of The Square? Christian is the curator of a museum of contemporary art in Stockholm; the number one obstacle is money, he explains early on. Hiply dressed and doing his best to dodge his own faults, he juggles his day-to-day job, his nights at parties, his young daughters from a previous marriage, a reporter he slept with (Elisabeth Moss), an encounter with a pickpocket, and the problems with the museum’s new installation. The installation is called “The Square”: a physical space where all people are equal and must be humane to each other—a concept that proves difficult to concretely explain, and even more difficult to market.
Östlund had a breakout of sorts with 2014’s Force Majeure, and The Square continues that film’s way of breaking people down, particularly men, into creatures with absurd atavistic instincts barely covered by even more absurd public facades. The Square is nothing if not a string of not-at-all-subtle comic setpieces to that effect, including a violent performance piece during a black-tie dinner party (Buñuel would be proud) and a Q&A with a conceptual artist (Dominic West) who keeps being interrupted by a man with Tourette’s syndrome. The concept at the center of all this is delightfully droll: the idea that serious introspection and universal empathy—which, in a perfect world, we would all practice anyway—can be turned into the kind of artistic event that only the rarefied would even attend, let alone be effected by. Art-world pretension is a fish in a barrel if there ever was one, and to the film’s credit, Östlund has his sights on something larger: class-conflict, poverty, and the idea of a utopian society that has evaded even a place as progressive as Sweden. Christian is callow, irresponsible, and self-centered, but the film works because Bang is affable enough to keep the movie from condescending. Christian is both a cad and an innocent; his mistakes are mistakes that anyone in his position might make, and his humbling is not one we’re meant to take snide pleasure in. (“You must think very highly of yourself”, Moss says to him at one point, to which his response is an instinctive, strikingly sincere “I don’t”).
This is an idea whose weight the film doesn’t do full justice to: that idealistic humanism and absurdist cringe-comedy should be forever bound together, because we are, on the whole, a very absurd species. The Square‘s level of insight into said absurdity, either for the art world specifically or humanity in general, is thin for a movie that stretches for two and a half hours. Like Force Majeure, it ends on a weaker note than it begins, as if Östlund the dramatist is better at spotting our foibles than coming up with emotional, weighty, meaningful conclusions for them. But as a humorist, he’s a shrewd adult who hasn’t lost touch with his inner child, and that inner child is a very naughty prankster. As the various ideas of this deadpan comedy diffuse, the most lasting ones are that low-brow entertainment can do more than art, that truly effective art has to be dangerous, and that—in a world of pretensions and poses, of problems that have no perfect solution, of political arguments where it’s impossible to please everyone—the most honest form of human expression is an awkward breakdown. I’ll drink to that. Skål.
The Square was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Golden Globes. It’ll be available on iTunes by the end of the month, if you want to wince in the privacy of your own home.