CREDIT: Magnolia Pictures

This review was originally posted on News Cult in October 2017.

Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary

Director: Ruben Östlund

Running Time: 142 Minutes

Rating: R for Tourette’s-Fueled Potty Mouth, Outrageously Offensive Violence, and Dangerous Handling of a Condom

Release Date: October 27, 2017 (Limited)

A chimpanzee roommate walks around the apartment right before some hanky-panky is about to go down. A tug-of-war over a condom very nearly leads to some messy results. A shirtless performance artist acts like a gorilla for sanctioned live theater at a fundraiser dinner. For all the merciless weirdness that occurs in The Square, it is ultimately rather on-the-nose with the point it sets out to make.

The Palme d’Or winner at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, The Square is the latest satire from Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund. To American eyes, it may at first glance seem like the latest case of the Europeans going full-bore with their European wackiness. But to Scandinavian viewers who are likely more familiar with Östlund’s sensibility, this probably looks like a straightforward comedy of manners, if perhaps a bit overlong. Plus, if you can get past the subtitles (and a good chunk of the dialogue is in English anyway), it becomes a lot more accessible. Besides, there is a hardcore zing directed at Comic Sans, so it cannot be completely incomprehensible.

The major conflict involves the testing of museum curator Christian’s (Claes Bang) ideals after his wallet and cell phone are stolen. This actually serves as the perfect opportunity to test out the message of the installation piece by American artist Julian (Dominic West) that Christian is currently presenting. The piece, which gives the film its name, is designed as an area where trust between patrons is binding. It is a slice of society in which everyone is looking out for each other. When Christian distributes a letter throughout an apartment building requesting the quick return of his possessions, his thief actually complies, thus fulfilling the promise of The Square. Alas, as Christian has given his letter out to all the building’s residents, the parents of a preteen boy wrongfully punish him for the same theft. In turn, the boy becomes a steady vengeful thorn in Christian’s side, constantly threatening to “make chaos.” In addition to all that, Christian must deal with a viral video campaign to promote The Square that gets out of hand, as well as the fling he gets into with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a journalist covering the opening, that develops beyond his emotional comprehension.

The Square is much stronger in its outsize moments of satire than in its more intimate moments. From the viral video that exploits the plight of the homeless by exploding a baby, to the man shouting misogynistic obscenities during an interview at the museum who claims to have Tourette’s, to the aforementioned ape-man performance artist who takes his routine way too far, these set pieces are all steady and effective in their outrageousness. But Christian’s more personal moments of crisis are harder to unpack for a clear meaning. His fight with the non-thief boy putters out unsatisfyingly and a little sickeningly, while his situation with Anne is just plain impossible to define, with Moss giving a performance that is solid but hard to pin down. Overall, The Square is an adventure of morality that will have you asking “How would I act in that situation?” and also, “Is it even worth it to entertain the possibility that I could ever end up in that situation?”

The Square is Recommended If You Like: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Art World but also making fun of the Art World

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Dirt Piles as Art