Movie review: ‘The Square’ punctures modern art world’s pretensions
‘The Square’ punctures modern art world’s pretensions. The Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund possesses an exceptionally crisp, legible way of creating images. His frames are simply but elegantly composed, and he choreographs bodies within natural and built environments with superb attention to rhythms and detail.
Those gifts were on display in Östlund’s breakout film, 2014’s “Force Majeure,” a satire of gender politics set in a Swiss ski resort. Östlund’s new film, “The Square,” evinces the same cool, cleanly delineated visual style and mordant humor.
“The Square” may be one of the most timely films of this season, but it squanders its relevancy by shooting fish in the world’s most shallow, painfully obvious barrel — the contemporary art world, where jargon has taken the place of emotion and pretentious language has superseded technical prowess, pictorial beauty, and pleasure.
Christian (Claes Bang), chief curator at a swank museum in Stockholm, personifies the values of his time and culture, affecting trendy suits, whimsical red eyeglasses and an air of concerned but easily distracted humanism.
When Christian is robbed outside the museum, the episode sends him down an alternately amusing and alarming rabbit hole of revenge and unintended consequences; simultaneously a new installation called “The Square” — intended to question the “rights and obligations” of citizens occupying the same political and philosophical space — is creating problems of its own.
Individually, the scenes in “The Square” are often marvelous to behold: The film begins with a funny interview between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), as she confronts him on the arcane gobbledygook in one of his programs. Another scene with Anne, during which she encounters Christian in front of a teetering installation of stacked desks, echoes the current debates regarding sex and power inside the art world and beyond.
The film’s most controversial sequence, featuring “Planet of the Apes” actor Terry Notary disrupting a black-tie dinner, confronts viewers with a meditation on men behaving badly. And yes, that’s a very on-point Dominic West channeling Julian Schnabel as a pajama-clad visiting artist.
Eventually, though, “The Square” feels fatally superficial.
Rating: R (for coarse language, some strong sexuality and brief violence)
Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West
Writer-director: Ruben Östlund
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes