Ruben Östlund’s The Square makes his previous film, 2014’s acclaimed Force Majeure, look like a line. It builds around the astonishing simplicity of its predecessor by using the same bricks, which now spread out in various directions but – crucially – also amount to a coherent whole.
And what an achievement that is, considering that Force Majeure’s main strength was its absolute refusal to let one incident go. Like that one embarrassing memory that you have, and which people sometimes bring up out of the blue, making you wonder in disbelief how they could still remember. Except of course, our embarrassing memories are not as bad as what happens to that film’s male protagonist. Or are they?
This persistent doubt is one of the core engines of Östlund’s cinema, along with his pinpoint precision in isolating the most cringe-worthy instances of everyday social interaction. In The Square, they spill over from the familial to the professional, and from the instinctive to the performative. When artistic intent – and legitimacy – is brought into the picture, there’s a whole new layer to play with.
And if Östlund is playing, museum director Christian often ends up losing – seemingly unable to catch a break because of thieves, fate, plus his hidden prejudice and a borderline idiotic lack of self-awareness. A PR campaign backfires badly, an ordinary act of what he believes to be spontaneous courage turns out to be an elaborate (though not as much as the one in Östlund’s 2011 Play) strategy to steal his phone and wallet, while even a no-strings-attached fling leads instead to awkward confrontations (with a fantastic Elisabeth Moss in a small but memorable part). And this is just what happens in and around the X-Royal Museum, which Östlund treats as much more than just ‘contemporary art is silly’-type scenery. Yes, there are a few winks and laughs, but it’s never just for the sake of satire. Instead, it fuels the sort of social experiments he likes to set up around his characters, only to lock them in and turn up the heat until the situation becomes unbearable.
A deliciously self-contained dinner-party scene featuring ‘animal performer’ Terry Notary is easily the highlight in that regard. By itself, it’s flawlessly executed and perfectly demonstrates a few things that we know instinctively about ourselves – our delayed collective reaction to danger, and subsequent overreaction, significantly alter our individual judgement. But that would be just mere illustration; what elevates the material is how it intersects with the more personal questions asked by the film and the characters, occupying the same mental space without relating to them directly. Christian is barely in the scene, yet we feel that this man jumping on a table pretending to be an ape is saying a lot about him.
That’s what impresses the most with The Square: it’s not easy to make a series of vignettes work this cohesively without constantly hammering it home. The titular art installation that’s supposed to be a “sanctuary of trust and caring” for us to “share equal rights and obligations” is being built outside of the museum (and Östlund cuts to it often, just like he did with the ominous mountain in Force Majeure), and you feel that image of an enclosed space captures the director’s skillful construction work around the story.
Eventually, the film does run out of steam – coinciding with Christian’s inevitably reaching a breaking point – but for almost the entirety of its running time it remains a delight. The script is relentless in establishing a premise and making you simultaneously dread and anticipate the obvious development; the enjoyment comes not from being told what we already know (each one of us presumably negotiates the same behavioral and emotional terrain every day) but from enticing a tragedy-like feeling of fear and pity of our own shortcomings.