Ruben Östlund’s vast clutter of provocation, an unexpected winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes, begins with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist, interviewing a swish Stockholm curator called Christian (Claes Bang).
She ingenuously chews through some of the nonsensical prose in one of his catalogues – the usual spaghetti of meaningless technical terms – before they happen upon an economic, disciplined expression of the same idea. The film looks to have set out its stand. Are we going to be disembowelling contemporary modern art and gutting its awful pretentions?
Well, yes. The film does have some fun with that. A sculpture composed from lines of piled earth sits largely unnoticed in one corner of the gallery. When heads push round the corner they invariably pull back with no significant pause. The artwork that gives the film its title really does sound like “something my five-year-old could do”: a square, painted on the ground, within which visitors must behave virtuously.
But much of the art here has real power. An already-famous scene finds Terry Notary, a motion-capture artist, assaulting the guests at a posh dinner for the gallery. At first they play along. When his actions become unacceptable, they find themselves forced from embarrassed acquiescence into genuine resistance. The piece really does interrogate bourgeois mores.
The Square is here to provoke, but it is also here to ask sincere moral questions about the distances we put between ourselves. While walking to work, Christian assists a passerby who seems about to be assaulted. He and his friend are enormously pleased with their act of (rare, we suspect) altruism.
Then they discover that Christian’s wallet, phone and cufflinks have been stolen. Being helpful is, it seems, barely worth the effort. They track down his phone and hatch a plan to draw out the thieves. This brings Christian among the excluded and the disadvantaged. New worlds open up.
Östlund made his name with similarly barbed, but much more disciplined films such as Play and Force Majeure. The Square is packed full of good scenes and – in the search for Christian's wallet – it has a strong narrative spine that leads to unsettling revelations. But too many of the subplots seem grafted on to no good end.
Though that opening scene is useful, Moss’s part could be filleted cleanly from the enterprise without much affecting its forward momentum. A scene involving an artist (Dominic West) whose interview is disrupted by a man with Tourette syndrome plays a little like a discrete, blackly funny sketch.
Indeed, the more The Square goes on, the more it gathers the quality of a cinematic art show. One can imagine visitors leaving and discussing the exhibits like the characters in Woody Allen's Manhattan. "Oh you liked the fight over the condom? I didn't like that so much. But I really enjoyed the video with the exploding baby." Ideas hang off the central story like poisonous fruit.
The film is shot with a clinical order that mirrors that of the gallery. Rooms are white boxes. Little is allowed to be dirty. Östlund has created the perfect package to house his array of not-quite-interlocking ideas. He has also devised an ingenious way of unearthing his protagonist's complacencies and opening him up to the horrors of the real world. For all its caustic wit, The Square is a fiercely moral film. It knows wrong from right.
Before it won the Palme d'Or, many critics were arguing that The Square would lose some of its 140 minute before going on release. That may not happen now. But it would be worth Östlund's while to have another look. Chip away some of the plaster and he might reveal a full-throated masterpiece.
As things stand, The Square remains a textured, funny, eccentric piece of work. But it's baggy.