Year: 2017
Director(s): Ruben Ostlund
Writer(s): Ruben Ostlund
Region of Origin: Sweden

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: R
Digital, Color, 142 mins

Synopsis: A poignant satirical drama reflecting our times – about the sense of community, moral courage and the affluent person’s need for egocentricity in an increasingly uncertain world. (Source)

Activism is all the rage, thanks to social media and a climate gradually willing to speak out against the injustices that plague everyday life. Some people post links to charities, others speak up about abuse and a large portion just rant on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The extent and benefit of these posts can be hard to gauge, however, and the sad truth is, many of these messages are just that – words without action. Amongst other things, Ruben Ostlund’s The Square is about this fundamental hypocrisy. Operatic in scope and damning in every way, Ostlund’s latest farce explores the personal space that resides around our apathy. At what point do we decide to act, and do our voices of dissent match who we are on a deeper level? This is just scratching the surface of what Ostlund has to say, but in the most basic of terms, The Square is exactly the film we need right now, a gut-busting social critique that cuts deep and knocks us into submission.

After receiving a huge grant, Sweden’s X-Royal Museum is prepping a new installation and exhibit. The piece in question is a square shaped, sectioned off piece of land outlined by light, followed by the accompanying manifesto: “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” To launch the piece, the museum’s aloof curator, Christian (Claes Bang), finds himself in a tough spot, wondering how to make The Square’s altruistic intent break through the noise of a self-obsessed culture. Funnily enough, it’s after Christian’s cell phone is pick-pocketed that he’s sent on a personal journey that challenges his own social graces and a crumbling facade. Navigating two bloodthirsty PR agents, an enigmatic journalist and a young boy with a grudge, Christian’s world is thrown upside down as tries to stay afloat amidst a world that is seemingly out to destroy him.

Using its modern art backdrop to hone in on Christian’s affluent lifestyle, Ostlund draws clever metaphor from escalating encounters, many of which rush towards their unwitting protagonist like a parade of raging bulls. There’s an irreverent eloquence in the film’s loose, day-in-the-life structure, which effortlessly explores tangents and never goes where we’d expect. Along the way, all of this is a welcomed excuse for Ostlund to examine social strata, good intentions laced with self-absorption and how comical acts of vengeance don’t always get the results desired. Overall, the film’s overarching themes illustrate how we’re all connected, and that each and every one of our actions has a larger consequence we’re unaware of. As such, this is a very dense film, with nothing ever going to waste as subtle setoffs give way to satisfying payoffs both emotionally and in terms of the film’s outrageous humor. As the film continually shifts from silly, to sad, to absurd and even horrifying, Ostlund proves himself a deft master of metaphor, facing ugly truths that aren’t afraid to burn down social convention amidst self-effacing gags which pinpoint deep insecurity and innate flaws.

Propping up the film’s absurdist aesthetic, is an ensemble who goes the distance. Claes Bang’s Christian is a whopper of a character, charismatic, but a total mess. Bang turns in an unwittingly clueless delivery that’s nevertheless magnetic. He also has to problem tapping into the film’s deeper emotion and nerve. Elisabeth Moss steals a few scenes, approaching Christian as a journalist named Anne. Moss in many ways matches Bang’s quirk, challenging her counterpart and pushing him outside of his comfort zone. Christopher Læssø is a riot as Christian’s colleague, Michael. Læssø is basically along for the ride, but adds a sense of chaos to things. Last but certainly not least, noted movement coach Terry Notary shines as Oleg. In what amounts to be the film’s centerpiece, Notary’s Oleg invades an upscale dinner party as the main event, an artist appearing in character as an ape. The encounter starts off fun seemingly benign but soon spins off the rails, embodying the film’s crux of social division, etiquette and the gulf between indifference and action.

If there’s one thing I haven’t stressed enough, it’s that The Square is extremely funny. Yes, this is the work of a true provocateur, and Ostlund’s latest is a masterwork jam-packed with subversive defiance. It’s also a striking blend of comic genius, with laugh out loud moments that create a sobering view of community apathy and unforeseen grace. In the end, this unparalleled blend of extremes is what resonates, creating a perfect reflection of modern day absurdity, and a new classic that has to be seen to be believed.

SG