Magazine article Variety

'Square' Roots out Civilized Society's Creeping Rot

Magazine article Variety

'Square' Roots out Civilized Society's Creeping Rot

Article excerpt

The word "suspense" connects to thrillers, action and deadly violence. But what if you were a lofty filmmaker out to diagnose the creeping misanthropy of our society, and you were a wizard at applying the dread-ridden playful tools of suspense to that? You'd be Ruben Ostlund, the Swedish director of the acclaimed domestic psychological passion play "Force Majeure" (2014), and now "The Square," which premiered tonight at Cannes. Ostlund creates suspense the old-fashioned way, setting up scenes that make the audience go: What in God's name is going to happen next? But he also creates suspense in a new-fangled way, turning the space between people into an alarming existential battleground. He's like Hitchcock infused with the spirit of mid-period Bergman.

"The Square" is set in Stockholm, and it's about the chief curator of a prestigious art museum. Christian (Claes Bang), tall and impeccable, with red-framed glasses and swept-back hair, is handsome enough to evoke the young Pierce Brosnan. He glides through the world with expensive confidence, yet from the opening scene things start to go wrong for him. There are two reasons for that. He is, as it turns out, a bit of a boob, and the form his boobism takes is that he's in total denial of what a privileged, passive hypocrite he is.

"Force Majeure" was like an x-ray into everything gone wrong in the relationship between men and women, with special emphasis on the insidious wimpiness of the 21st-century post-feminist male. The entire movie spun out of a random yet telling incident: a fluky avalanche during a family ski trip that caused the husband to reflexively run for cover rather than protect his wife and children.

"The Square," too, builds on a cataclysm that erupts out of nowhere. Christian is strolling to work in the middle of morning rush hour when a woman starts to shout, "He's going to kill me!" Sure enough, a brute of a boyfriend comes at her, but a pedestrian blocks his way, and Christian lends a hand. It's only when the two saviors are done congratulating each other that Christian realizes that his wallet, cell phone and heirloom cuff links have all been stolen. The whole thing was a setup, and Christian will be damned if he's going to let some petty crooks get away with that.

At the X-Royal Museum, housed in a former palace, he and his team are busy putting together a new exhibit called The Square, which is all about lionizing the space - a literal square - that everyone in society shares, the place where we must all look out for each other. It's a symbol of the basic social contract, but Ostlund is out to demonstrate that the world is fast losing that impulse.

A museum like Christian's is part of the problem. Ostlund offers a suavely merciless take-down of the decadence of the contemporary art world, whether it's Christian, in an interview with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American TV journalist, stumbling to defend the postmodern gobbledygook in one of his catalogs, or the simple sight of an exhibit that consists of cone-shaped piles of rubble, with a sign in white neon that says "You have nothing. …

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