Directed by Ruben Östlund. Starring Claes Bang. In English, Swedish, and Danish, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund demonstrated his uncanny ability to zero in on the follies and foibles of masculinity in tech-influenced modern life with his 2014 Oscar-nominated tour de force Force Majeure—fusing the discomfiting with the amusing in a dazzling, dynamic social commentary. In his Cannes Palme d'Or winner The Square, Östlund soldiers on in similar territory, but transplants it all to the world of contemporary art—and packs in a surfeit of other topical issues.
As the director of a Stockholm art museum, Christian (Claes Bang) is overseeing the launch of a new exhibition featuring an installation in which participants must engage in a social contract about trust within the boundaries of a defined space.
In a bid to remain competitive in the age of social media, the public-relations team of a Stockholm art museum concocts an attention-seeking media campaign for the exhibit with a controversial video. As predicted, the video created for the campaign goes viral—but with a severe backlash and frenzied mediastorm.
However, Christian is too distracted to properly address the fallout due to his wallet and smartphone being stolen. When he tracks down the location of his phone, he sets upon a vindictive plan to smoke out the thieves from an impoverished housing project. Alas, his strategy backfires, leading to further complications.
To make matters even worse, a performance art piece at a high-class fundraising dinner goes wildly off-script, with disastrous results. It's a gripping scene, albeit one that draws upon what has seemingly become a mandatory element of Scandinavian cinema: an explosive confrontation at a formal event.
As if that's not enough, Christian is beset on all fronts. From a fling with a journalist to his attempt to help out a homeless woman, every move he makes goes awry. Almost every conceivable hot-button topic is addressed, including elitism, gender relations, classism, homelessness, immigration, interracial relations, liberalism, political correctness, social obligations, sexual politics, familial relations, and dietary preferences. And apes.
While Östlund overloads the narrative with socially fraught ingredients and Christian's flawed decision-making, the film's watchability is never impacted—quite the opposite, in fact. What this stylized misanthropy does interfere with, however, is narrative satisfaction, due to too many ideas being introduced, then being left underdeveloped or hanging. Nonetheless, as testimony to Östlund's filmmaking prowess, this tense high-society takedown remains taut, gawk-worthy, and thought-provoking, to say the least.