The Square: impeccably acted, consistently witty

Review: But anyone who can make a coherent whole of all these elements deserves a prize

The Square
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Director: Ruben Östlund
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Linda Anborg, Christopher Laesso
Running Time: 2 hrs 31 mins

Most summaries of Ruben Östlund’s latest mad film find space for the word “satire”. There is certainly some of that about.

The picture begins with Christian (Claes Bang), curator at a prestigious Swedish art gallery, talking top-brain baloney with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American journalist. She wryly ploughs through some of the nonsensical prose in one of his catalogues – the usual combination of the obvious and the meaningless – before they happen upon a less convoluted expression of the same idea.

The scene is funny, but it does invite suspicions that Östlund, director of the superb Force Majeure, is aiming his elephant gun at the largest of barn doors. My hypothetical four year old could create some of this art. But he or she would have more sense than to write the prose that accompanies it. That satirises itself.

Conspiracy theorists can enjoy themselves by pretending that the Cannes Film Festival was in on Östlund's game. Following consistently positive, but rarely ecstatic, reviews, the film eased past competition such as Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless and Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here to win the Palme d'Or at last year's event.


That ties in with an argument about the elitist nature of artistic institutions. Right? The commissars honour a sprawling, highbrow film that can’t decide upon its narrative centre. Everyone is part of the experiment.

Calm down. Viewed nearly a year after its premiere, The Square holds up better than those unconvinced reviews suggested. And much of its appeal springs from its equivocal attitude to the art in Christian's care. A classic "my four year old…" joke revolves around the damage done to an installation comprising multiple piles of soil.

But that installation – or possibly sculpture – is an undeniably beautiful thing. It is meant to stick in the brain and it does stick in the brain.

Elsewhere, a brilliant, already famous sequence finds Terry Notary – a motion-capture artist known for his work on Planet of the Apes – assaulting the guests at a posh dinner for the gallery. They initially pretend to be good sports. When his actions become unacceptable, they find themselves forced from embarrassed acquiescence into violent resistance. The sequence is a very good, very dense joke that celebrates transgressive art while ridiculing some who patronise it (in at least two senses of "patronise").

All that noted, for a film that takes place in such ordered interiors, The Square is insanely baggy. There is a holding narrative, but we drift away from that story for uncomfortably long stretches.

Interconnected exhibits

While walking to work, Christian assists a passerby who seems in danger. He and his friend are enormously pleased with their act of altruism. Then they discover that Christian’s wallet, phone and cufflinks have been stolen. 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.

While that is going on, Christian manages the promotion of a stark exercise in conceptual art concerning (we’ve finally got there) a white square that, according to the artist’s statement, offers “a sanctuary of trust and caring”.

It’s nonsense. But it has a purity that, unlike the cynical effusions of Christian’s marketing team, deserves some respect.

Prizes should be given to any viewer who can knock all these elements together into a coherent whole. Then again, why bother? We don’t ask that of an art gallery. This cleanly shot, impeccably acted, consistently witty picture works well as a collection of thematically interconnected exhibits. “You didn’t like the monkey in the apartment? Oh, that was one of my favourites. What about the injured child or the fight over the condom?”

These are the sorts of things you might say.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist