As this film opens, we watch as an old statue is taken down from in front of a building; it’s one of those ornate “general on horseback” statues and as the crane lifts it down, it falls to the ground with a loud clang. Behind it is a poster for the art exhibit that is replacing it, an art exhibit called Piles of Gravel; it is what the sign says. So, yes, we’re in for a not particularly subtle satire on the world of modern art. Well, satire doesn’t always need to be subtle and that’s a good thing, because this one isn’t. Claes Bang portrays the harried curator of a museum of the ultra-modern variety. He’s struggling to define himself in the context of society and much of the film is about the ways in which modern humans fail to ever really help each other. A young woman with a clipboard petition for something approaches a man in an early scene and asks him “Would you like to save a human life?” to which he brusquely responds, “Not right now.” Look, I said it wasn’t subtle. But what Ostlund has in spades is a merciless eye for the awkwardness of human interactions and the thousands of little cruelties people dish out every day. This film works best when its mining those elements. Elizabeth Moss is, per usual, absolutely fantastic as an American journalist who finds herself being charmed by Bang’s dashing curator; she’s only in about four scenes in the film, but every one of them is a knockout, most especially an incredibly awkward post-coital conversation revolving around, well, you’ll see. Terry Notary is phenomenal in a tiny role as a performance artist that pretends to be an ape; there’s a scene revolving around one of his performances that is the best of the film and could function as a brilliant art-lampooning short film all on its own. I absolutely loved Ostlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, and with The Square he’s made a much more ambitious film. Force Majeure was kind of laser focused on the breakdowns and cruelties of just a handful of characters and, if it did have something pretty nasty to say about human nature, it wasn’t self-consciously trying to explore things like societal responsibilities, political correctness and the folly of modern art. So The Square meanders and at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, it drags in the final third and ultimately suffers from being too scattered and too ambitious for its own good. Still, Ostlund’s crafted a film that, when it works, is like a well-oiled machine and is often both very funny and cringe inducing. At the end of the day, while this isn’t the masterwork that Force Majeure was, it’s still a striking, engaging and interesting film. And if Ostlund’s going to be making mistakes, being too ambitious isn’t a particularly bad one for him to make. 3 ½ stars.
tl;dr – satire about modern society & modern art is too ambitious & meandering for its own good, but great performances & some brilliant scenes mean it’s still a film worth wrestling with. 3 ½ stars.