Starring Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss
Arts & Life
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This disjointed but often electrically entertaining satire, which scored a divisive Palme d’Or win at Cannes, centres on Christian (Claes Bang), the head curator at a prestigious contemporary art museum in Stockholm. Christian likes to talk about art that expresses progressive social values, challenges the patriarchal capitalist order and explores the complex dimensions of the human experience.
All of which has absolutely no effect on the fact that Christian is a callous, complacent, coercive jackhole.
Darkly funny, depressingly topical, with bursts of savage absurdity, The Square (in Swedish and English, with subtitles) is another cinematic explosive lobbed by Ruben Östlund, whose 2014 film, Force Majeure, deconstructed modern masculinity and class privilege at an exclusive ski resort. Here the setting is a former royal palace that now hosts a different kind of aristocracy, the elite producers and consumers of the contemporary art world. ("I actually know some of the 291 people who hold 50 per cent of the world’s wealth," Christian brags at one point.)
Christian — as played by Bang, everybody’s new Danish crush — is alarmingly handsome, elegantly attired, smoothly plausible, at least until his wallet and phone are stolen in a public square, a triggering event that leads to a tragicomic personal and professional devolution.
Some of Östlund’s satirical jabs are aimed at modern art. The museum’s current blockbuster show is called Mirrors and Piles of Gravel, by an artist (Dominic West) who likes to wear pyjamas and a suit jacket. Östlund also spoofs opaque art-world jargon. At one point, American reporter Anne (Elisabeth Moss) reads back a buzzwordy statement initially issued by Christian, who clearly has no idea what it means.
Mostly, however, Östlund avoids the conceptual-fish-in-a-barrel parody of 21st-century art and instead dives down to look at art’s proximity to power, money, status and celebrity. (Think Kanye West and Kim Kardashian at Art Basel Miami.)
Here, things get pretty queasy. Östlund is an auteur of uncomfortableness, and The Square features several exquisitely awkward set pieces. The director favours extended sequences in which something distracting and inexplicable is unfolding in the background. (Why is there a baby at this meeting? Where did that chimp come from? Why is that art installation noisily imploding in the adjacent room?)
The Square keeps viewers off-balance, taking on race and xenophobia, gender and abuse, poverty and class privilege with a sideways Nordic tone that is both hilarious and serious.
Östlund is especially fascinated by the moral and emotional chaos skulking around beneath the veneer of culture and civilization. This isn’t exactly an original notion, but it is expressed in The Square through a completely original — and wildly unpredictable — scene. Östlund skewers the tricky relationship between the cultivated upper-classes and the artistic avant-garde when an elegant black-tie dinner is disrupted by an absolutely Darwinian piece of performance art. The diners soon reach the limits of their support for "provocative" art, as a half-naked artist puts on a chest-beating display of brute force and dominance. (Literally chest-beating. The artist is played by Terry Notary, a veteran motion-capture actor from The Planet of the Apes series.)
This is the kind of mesmerizing, mortifying cinematic moment that makes you want to sink into a hole in the floor even as you cannot look away. It’s a quintessential Östlund scene, and it is, as they say, worth the price of admission.
Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.
Starring Claes Bang and Elisabeth Moss
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