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'The Square' Skillfully Skewers The Pretensions Of The Modern Art World


This is FRESH AIR. The Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund won the top prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival for "The Square," a satirical comedy set at a contemporary art museum in Stockholm. The movie, which features Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, will represent Sweden in the Oscar race for best foreign language film. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: It was perhaps inevitable that Ruben Ostlund would someday get around to skewering the pretensions of the modern art world. In films like "Play" and "Force Majeure," the director established himself as an impish provocateur with a gallerist's sensibility. Nearly every scene in his movies takes the form of a comic tableau - impeccably framed, beautifully lit and presented for our close scrutiny.

We are invited to laugh, empathize and even recoil - sometimes, all at once - all of which makes Ostlund something of an alter ego to the protagonist of his blisteringly funny new movie, "The Square." Superbly played by a tall, dark and handsomely stubbled Danish actor named Claes Bang, Christian is the curator of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm, and thus a prominent member of the city's cultural elite.

The movie's title refers to Christian's latest acquisition, an exhibit that consists of a large square etched in the cobblestones outside the museum entrance. A placard describes "The Square" as a sanctuary of trust and caring, but the movie turns out to be exactly the opposite - 2 hours and 31 minutes of squirm-inducing comedy and withering moral judgment, all of it designed to rebound on the viewer.

If that sounds taxing, it isn't. Ostlund may be a prankster, but he is also a generous entertainer whose cool, clinical touch comes wrapped in seductive compositions and sharply contoured performances. You'd be hard-pressed to find another film that so skillfully turns the viewers' discomfort into pleasure. Much of "The Square" plays like a roving, plot-free tour of the museum's day-to-day operations.

There are easy but priceless sight gags like an installation that consists entirely of neatly arranged identical piles of granite, some of which are accidentally vacuumed up by the cleaning staff. The camera eavesdrops on meetings in which Christian and his colleagues discuss bold new marketing strategies, raising the age-old debate of art versus commerce.

Christian is by far the most compelling and complicated of the movie's many exhibits - arrogant but reserved and possessed of a curiously magnetic gaze that peeks out from behind trendy, thick-rimmed glasses. He is, above all, a man who holds a position of considerable power and knows precisely how to leverage it.

Against his better judgment, he sleeps with an American journalist named Anne, played by Elisabeth Moss, in a scene that builds to an unusually icky post-coital punchline. But he isn't prepared when Anne confronts him later at the museum and interrogates him about their one-night stand, a conversation made all the more tense and awkward by the building noise in the background.


ELISABETH MOSS: (As Anne) Do you just go have sex with lots of other women?

CLAES BANG: (As Christian) Um...


MOSS: (As Anne) Is this something that you do a lot?


BANG: (As Christian) Kind of a private question, isn't it?

MOSS: (As Anne) I'm asking how often you do...


MOSS: (As Anne) How often would you say that you take women that you don't know very well and have sex with them?

BANG: (As Christian) I'm not sure. I'm - I...

MOSS: (As Anne) Do you not remember them?


BANG: (As Christian) Yeah, sure. I do, yeah.

MOSS: (As Anne) You know their names?


BANG: (As Christian) Yeah.

MOSS: (As Anne) Yeah.

BANG: (As Christian) Mmm hmm, sure.

MOSS: (As Anne) Always?

BANG: (As Christian) Always, yeah.

MOSS: (As Anne) Yeah. So what's my name?


BANG: (As Christian) I know your name.

MOSS: (As Anne) OK, then good, what is it?


BANG: (As Christian) This is stupid.

MOSS: (As Anne) Anyone that would know somebody's name would just say, of course I know your name. Name...

BANG: (As Christian) I know your name.

MOSS: (As Anne) What is it?


MOSS: (As Anne, laughing).

BANG: (As Christian) Anne.


MOSS: (As Anne) OK.

CHANG: Like most of the subplots here, Christian and Anne's fling doesn't neatly resolve itself. For all its scalding, take-no-prisoners wit, "The Square" is an open-ended and exploratory piece of work. Each individual scene plays less like a narrative steppingstone than a carefully observed behavioral experiment rigged for maximum anxiety.

But Ostlund's ideas do eventually coalesce around a key character arc that starts with Christian getting mugged and losing his wallet and phone, a crime that is staged in broad daylight, fittingly enough, like a piece of performance art. Christian and one of his staffers track the phone's whereabouts to an apartment building in a rough part of town, where he launches an ill-advised plan to scare the thieves into giving back their contraband. But his actions have cruel and unintended consequences.

And as the curator desperately tries to control the fallout, he is forced to confront the raw, unruly human spectacle of the less fortunate around him. Empathy, "The Square" suggests, is a quality that people of ostensibly progressive humanist values sometimes extol more than they practice. Not every jab in this expansive, leisurely movie finds its target, and there are moments when Ostlund seems to be stretching the usual boundaries of human behavior in order to prove a point about the stupidity and baseness of the species.

This is true even in the film's most unnerving, sure-to-be-talked-about sequence, the details of which are too good to spoil. Suffice to say that it features a brilliant performance by Terry Notaro (ph), an actor and stunt coordinator whose work in the recent "Planet Of The Apes" films serves him terrifyingly well here. The scene is both difficult and thrilling to watch. And it affirms that art - this movie itself being a flawed but fascinating example - can tell us things about ourselves that we'd prefer not to know.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interviews with John Green, the author of young adult novels like "The Fault In Our Stars," with journalist Jeff Goodell, the author of a book about how climate change and extreme weather are damaging American cities, and Matt Taibbi, author of a new book about the life and death of Eric Garner, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.
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