In the inciting incident of Ruben Östlund’s The Square, Christian (newcomer Claes Bang), the chief curator of a modern art museum in Stockholm, is walking to work when he encounters a terrified woman racing through a courtyard, screaming that an assailant is going to kill her. With the help of a stranger, Christian protects the damsel from her muscle-bound predator, defusing the situation. Moments later, after all parties have gone their separate ways, Christian realizes his wallet and cellphone are missing.
This confidence trick — inspired by a scam perpetrated on Östlund himself — sets the film’s narrative in motion and lays out the movie’s leitmotif, which boils down to “nothing is as it seems.” Slippery deceptions are embedded in just about every scene in this ludic satire, becoming so commonplace that the material world we see and hear is perpetually called into question. Christian may have been played, but Östlund is really playing us, in the tradition of Orson Welles’ F for Fake, Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and few other daring cinematic hoodwinks.
That this radical experiment in perception and reality plays out in and around a modern art museum — where piles of gravel ask to be accepted as art in its latest exhibition — is no accident. The gaseous pretentions of so much contemporary art have long been an easy cultural target, with Nocturnal Animals the latest movie to lob lazy potshots. But Östlund doesn’t critique this world so much as present it, poker-faced, as a keen backdrop for the deconstruction of measurable truth. If modern art is a con, so is everything else.
The result is a film chockablock with rambunctious energy and gut-punches of wit, where every scene is a surprise. Unpredictability infuses both of the movie’s twin plots. In one, Christian and a co-worker, having been able to track Christian’s stolen cellphone online, discover the thief’s apartment complex on the seedy side of town: His suspect could be one of any residents in the 15-story dwelling. They conceive the harebrained idea to drop a threatening, accusatory note in every letterbox in the building, demanding a return of his property — a scheme that initially yields some success before it boomerangs back to Christian in unexpected ways.
Meanwhile, Christian and his staff are in the process of promoting their forthcoming exhibition “The Square,” inspired by a participatory artwork by an Argentinean sociologist. “The Square” is simply a cordoned-off section of the museum inviting audiences to step inside and absorb the message on an adjacent plaque: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”
The project’s utopian intentions are soon subverted by a pair of millennial marketing renegades hired by the museum to generate media buzz for the exhibition. Considering only the Darwinian quest for clicks and virality, they develop a nihilistic YouTube video contrary to everything the exhibit (or the “product,” as they call it, without a hint of irony) stands for. The success of the offensive advertisement is right out of a Black Mirror episode — it lays bare our darkest pleasures.
This doesn’t convey half of the film’s bizarre detours and unexplained reveals. In one scene, a Q&A between a museum staffer and a pompous modern artist is continually disrupted by the staccato curses of a supposedly Tourette’s-suffering patron, who is met with a mixture of derision and politically correct calls for acceptance. In another diversion — arguably the best scene in the film — a posh gala fundraiser becomes the canvas for a performance art piece by an actor impersonating a wild animal — pestering guests and toppling the place settings until the performer’s Method immersion seemingly goes too far, leading to actual physical harm.
Or does it? Everything in the museum is a potential hall of mirrors, every interruption a possible ruse, every disruptive cellphone ring a coordinated trigger yielding uncomfortable revelations about complicity, complacency and perversity in the mass public. “The Square” is filled with either random or engineered psychological experiments between the art and the people experiencing it. We haven’t even gotten to Christian’s one-night stand with a screwball American journalist (Elisabeth Moss at her best), who happens to cohabitate with an adult chimpanzee. Don’t ask.
“Do you want to save a human life?” This query is pitched by a woman on the same square in Stockholm (there are squares everywhere in the film’s visual palette, if you look for them) where Christian is mugged. We never learn whom she’s trying to “save;” she’s ignored by everyone, much like the proliferation of homeless people around which the businessmen swerve on their routes to work. Lurking behind the movie’s gags and pranks, its First World problems and mystery-novel solutions, is an acknowledgement of unbridgeable social, cultural and economic chasms.
For all its sometimes-inexplicable tangents — and its question mark of an ending — on this regard it’s clear where Östlund’s sympathies lie. His savage treatment of the callous bourgeoisie has an echo of Buñuel and Pasolini, yet he’s smart enough to recognize that the elite almost always wins.
But what is winning when nothing makes sense? Your answer is as good as mine. The thrill is in the question.
THE SQUARE. Director: Ruben Östlund; Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West; Distributor: Magnolia; Rated R; in Swedish and English. Opens Friday at Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Tower Theater in Miami; expands to Cinema Paradiso Hollywood on Nov. 22 and the Lake Worth Playhouse on Dec. 1.