Ruben Östlund’s ‘The Square’

Square pegs, round hole

Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which won last year’s coveted Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, played one week at the Ambler Theater and disappeared. When I saw it there, barely 20 brave souls occupied the seats.

Above, in a memorable turn, former Cirque du Soleil and 'Planet of the Apes' specialist Terry Notary plays a gorilla impersonator hired to spice up a modern-art museum's benefit dinner. (Photo via IMDB.com.)

The movie has not gone completely unnoticed in this country; it was just nominated for a Best Foreign Film Academy Award. Imaginative and different, The Square arrives on DVD and is available to stream this week, so area viewers will get another chance to see it, if only in their own homes.

The shambling but entertaining story, made on a budget of just $5 million, follows the predicaments of Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang), the curator of a modern-art museum nobody seems to visit. He hopes for more publicity. He gets it.

The specific is universal 

Director Östlund has an unusually clear eye for the absurdities of Western society. Stockholm, in this movie, could just as easily be any major American city. He also has a gift for stark drama: the art world, public relations, and the media all get skewered.

But those are easy targets, and Östlund’s lens is wider. Confrontations over issues of political correctness occur in a steady stream. There is an unforgettable bit with a condom and U.S. actress Elisabeth Moss, in a vivid role, as well as a man in an ape suit hired to disrupt a fancy banquet at the museum. Christian must pick his way through a minefield of recognizable sociopolitical issues, from poverty to gender warfare to hypocrisy and obliviousness (including his own). Several mines explode.

To reach this vantage point, The Square seems to have been made in a remarkable place: a perfectly post-political-correctness world. That explains the sense of freedom it conveys. Is it just classic Swedish neutrality or a signpost toward a less conformist future?

We’ll see. Watching this movie gave me an unexpected feeling of relief, in a way I don’t remember any other recent film doing.

Off-piste

After my bracing experience of The Square, I rented Östlund’s 2014 film Force Majeure, a blunt and similarly compelling marital drama. One characteristic both films share is long takes.

We are not montaged to a forced conclusion; viewers get to observe the characters and judge the action for themselves with a minimum of cinematic manipulation. That, too, is freeing. The director may exceed his predecessor Ingmar Bergman in this trait.

Östlund, 43, began his career making ski movies (the backdrop for Force Majeure is a family ski vacation) and it occurs to me that it is very hard, if not impossible, to lie while schussing down a mountain. You have to get yourself there. Östlund studies his characters from a similar perspective — here they are, here is their objective, there are their obstacles; how will they make it? He has given some polite comments about his intentions with this film in interviews, but the finished product is more subversive than he lets on.

The Square’s satire may provoke some despair over the extent of the social restrictions we have made for ourselves. But the good news is that this movie not only got made but also won the top prize at Cannes. It’s a remarkably positive indicator for those who are interested in less orthodoxy in their movies and their world.

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