Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 22 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language, some Strong Sexual Content, and brief Violence
Directed by: Ruben Ostlund
Written by: Ruben Ostlund
Starring: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary & Christopher Laesso
Art can be hilarious, insightful, powerful, heartbreaking, and force people to contemplate deep thoughts long after they’ve finished watching, listening to, interacting with, or looking at the piece of art. Art can also be extremely pretentious. Much like beauty, what constitutes the pretentious side of art is all in the eye of the beholder. I’m sure that I’ve raved about certain arthouse flicks that have rubbed certain readers the wrong way, while I also roll my eyes towards what I view as pretentious nonsense. THE SQUARE is a satirical drama that openly mocks and draws dark laughs from its vicious skewing of the fartsier, ultra-pretentious side of the art world. It also tackles a few deep themes of its own and contains lots of absurdity. While this film certainly isn’t for everybody, I truly enjoyed THE SQUARE!
Christian (Claes Bang) is the upper-crust curator for a Stockholm art museum. With a new exhibit (a square of neon lights simply called “The Square”) on the way and little to garner public excitement for it, the museum attempts to draw controversy and inflammatory press to generate much-needed publicity. Meanwhile, Christian is preoccupied by a quest to retrieve his stolen cell phone. To boot, Christian’s apathetic attitude towards the bombastic press campaign might land him in hot water and he also finds himself romantically drawn towards ditzy journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss). Much like the museum’s reputation, Christian’s life begins to fall apart at the seams.
Even though THE SQUARE’s narrative frequently dips into absurdist comedy, it also has the feeling of a bizarre slice-of-life tale. Selling us on the role of snobby pretentious asshole Christian is Claes Bang. Bang’s protagonist starts off as a thoroughly unlikable, but remains amusing to watch. As the film goes on, Christian goes through a convincing story arc that progressively forces him to confront his uglier qualities and attempt to fix them. This adds a level of believable emotion to a movie that gets crazy and ridiculous. On the supporting side of things, Elisabeth Moss gets a few great scenes as strange journalist Anne, Christopher Laesso is hilarious as a cowardly assistant, Dominic West pops up (twice) as a frustrated artist, and Terry Notary makes a huge impression during the film’s most memorable sequence!
One scene that has been mentioned in many reviews and discussions about the film is the already infamous “dinner scene” in which a shirtless man parades around a room, acting like a violent chimpanzee. This moment starts off as strangely funny, but things quickly take an intense turn when people refuse to help dinner guests who clearly might be in real danger. This dark tone may seemingly come out of nowhere for some viewers, but transgressive humor fills the entire film. Other humorous moments include a man with Tourette syndrome interrupting a press conference, an awkward battle over the contents of a used condom, and painfully ironic interactions with homeless people. This movie is sure to shock and offend some people, but it simply isn’t afraid to push touchy buttons in order to entertain and make darkly humorous observations about society.
THE SQUARE contains lots of laughs, but a surprising amount of heart as well. Christian’s gradual transformation from heartless asshole to person who actually cares about his fellow-man is at this film’s core. However, the final minutes come to an abrupt conclusion that left me a bit unsatisfied. The point of this conclusion might be that life doesn’t quite work out the way you want to, but it felt like something crucial was left out that could tie everything up as a cohesive whole. To make the sudden finale even more baffling, THE SQUARE has a couple of spots where the pacing noticeably lags.
While it may not be perfect and the final third seems incomplete (like the story required something more to wrap it up), THE SQUARE is a cinematic oddity that provides genuine emotion (encased in a video message-turned-rant about society that brilliantly sums up the film’s main themes), lots of laughs, and a foreboding sense of psychological darkness (that damn dinner scene is satirically scary). THE SQUARE is a ballsy piece of art that will leave some viewers head over heels in love with it, others completely indifferent towards it, and some folks absolutely loathing it. I fall into the “I really liked it, but it could have been better” crowd. If you love arthouse cinema and also love mocking the pretentious art crowd, then you’ll likely get a lot of enjoyment out of THE SQUARE!