‘The Square’ punctures pretensions of modern art world


The Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund 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.

All of those gifts were on ample display in Ostlund’s breakout film, 2014’s “Force Majeure,” a satire of gender politics set in a Swiss ski resort. Ostlund’s new film, “The Square,” evinces the same cool, cleanly delineated visual style and mordant humor, but in service to a film that’s less a narrative than a collection of clever but ultimately facile vignettes. “The Square” may be one of the most timely films of this season, but it squanders its own relevancy by shooting fish in the world’s most shallow, painfully obvious barrel.

The barrel, for the most part, is the contemporary art world in which theoretical jargon has taken the place of emotion, and where the pretentious language of the academy has superseded such passe aesthetic concerns as technical prowess, pictorial beauty and pleasure.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.

Taken individually, the scenes that “The Square” comprises are often marvelous to behold: The film begins with a funny interview between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) in which she confronts him on the arcane gobbledygook in one of his programs; later, Ostlund stages a crowded street scene with Tharpian shrewdness and grace.

Another scene with Anne, during which she encounters Christian in front of a teetering installation of stacked desks, echoes uncannily with current debates regarding sex and power within the art world and beyond, just as 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 the bystander effect at their most primitive and elemental. (And yes, that’s a very on-point Dominic West channeling Julian Schnabel as a pajama-clad visiting artist.)

There are bluntly absurdist touches and non sequiturs throughout “The Square” as well, and Ostlund flouts typical narrative structure, introducing crucial information about Christian more than halfway through the film. It’s all funny — mostly — and Bang delivers a thoroughly convincing performance as a man embodying the most attenuated aspects of a social contract that has become fatally frayed (there are moments, especially when Christian is taken aback at some unexpected challenge or slight, when he resembles a modern-day James Mason).

Eventually, though, “The Square” feels fatally superficial, its provocations landing like pulled punches. When an a capella rendition of “Ave Maria” plays for the umpteenth time, it’s clear that Ostlund doesn’t have much new to say about trust, isolation, elitism and tribal paranoia, he’s just found compelling images through which to say it.

For all its stylishness and sophistication, “The Square” never adds up to more than its very attractive parts.

MOVIE REVIEW

“The Square”

Grade: C

Starring Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss. Directed by Ruben Ostlund. In Swedish and English with subtitles.

Rated R for coarse language, some strong sexuality and brief violence. 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Bottom line: Not much new to say, but images tell it in compelling way



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Living

Her mom was in foster care. How “The Chew” helped her pay it forward on Thanksgiving.
Her mom was in foster care. How “The Chew” helped her pay it forward on Thanksgiving.

Taking in people who need help in times of need is part of  Marisa D’Amour’s DNA. Her mom, a schoolteacher in Harlem, grew up in foster care and as an adult, became a foster parent herself. Marisa grew up with foster siblings, learning early on the importance of sharing and helping others. Today, she and her...
It’s not all about the turkey: 9 things you probably didn't know about Thanksgiving
It’s not all about the turkey: 9 things you probably didn't know about Thanksgiving

Each year, Thanksgiving comes around with with the giddy anticipation of devoruing comfort food and spending some QT with loved ones, which reminds you just what what you are thankful for the most. The rich, deep history of this centuries-old tradition is woven into the United States' cultural fabric, yet, there are still many aspects of the holiday...
Macy’s Day Parade 2017: 5 things to know about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Macy’s Day Parade 2017: 5 things to know about the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

There are a number of things associated with Thanksgiving− turkey, pilgrims, big dinners and family. One of them is the tradition of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Since 1924, Macy's has helped thousands of families celebrate the holidays with its annual parade.  The parade steps off at 9 a.m. sharp from 77th Street and Central Park...
The first “thankful” column Furman Bisher ever wrote, in 1955
The first “thankful” column Furman Bisher ever wrote, in 1955

For decades, the annual column the late, great Furman Bisher would run on Thanksgiving completed Atlanta readers’ holiday traditions. I just happened to stumble upon this column from 1993, in which he reprised his very first one, from 1955. Furman Bisher Originally published Nov. 25, 1993 Ran into this fellow...
39 years ago: Famous ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ turkey drop inspired by Atlanta’s WQXI-AM
39 years ago: Famous ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’ turkey drop inspired by Atlanta’s WQXI-AM

This was posted by Rodney Ho on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog  on Thanksgiving, November 23, 2017 Like any Thanksgiving Day tradition, I am going to post this item again as an annual tasty entree because it really was a classic moment in sitcom silliness. The infamous “Turkey Drop” episode aired October 30, 1978 during...
More Stories