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The Square

The Square, 2017

Christian (Claes Bang) is a curator at a prestigious art museum and also the father to two adolescent girls. Through the course of the film Christian is embroiled in various uncomfortable situations, including the unfortunate results of a poisoned pen trick he uses to get back items that were stolen from him, a hookup-gone-wrong with an American woman named Anne (Elizabeth Moss), and a controversial ad campaign intended to promote the museum's new exhibit. Along the way the themes of trust and privilege frequently arise.

As I watched this film, sitting through scene after scene of squirm-in-your-seat discomfort, the only thing I could really compare it to was how I felt watching Force Majeure. On a whim I went to the director's page on IMDb and sure enough, this film was made by that same director.

So if you have seen Force Majeure (which I would consider at once one of the best dark comedies I've seen in along time AND some of the most cringe-inducing 100 minutes I've watched on film), you have a good sense of the kind of staging, social interactions, and middle-aged/upper-class privileged cluelessness you'll be encountering here. As he did so masterfully in Force Majeure, writer/director Ostlund uses relatable situations to keep you hooked to the main character, while then showing how his (and our) worst impulses impact those around him.

The question that hangs over the whole film is that of the social contract and our obligations within it. There's a quote (which maddeningly I cannot track down) that goes something like "The People, in theory are wonderful and amazing. But people in reality are rude and difficult and maddening." Which is to say that so many of us hold ideas like fairness and kindness and giving in high esteem, but in a moment of coming face-to-face with a stranger might feel disgust or fear. Further, who do we implicitly trust, and why?

Bang keeps Christian just in the right frantic zone where you can hold out hope that he might realize the error of his ways and do the right thing. What is shrewd about the film is that all of the characters are some mix of selfishness and humanity. The film could have just as easily centered on Anne, who is her own special version of selfish and vaguely demented. One of the best sequences (and by "best" I mean, set cringe-meter to HIGH) involves a post-hookup confrontation between the two in which the power dynamic between them continually shifts, all while standing in front of a jarring art exhibit and under the bland gaze of a museum guard.

The standout sequence in the film comes close to the end and is the image most often used to promote the movie. It involves a performance artist called Oleg (Terry Notary) who takes a performance too far in front of a crowd of museum employees and patrons. If the movie's themes could be reduced to a short film, it would probably be that sequence, which of course manages to be funny and incredibly upsetting at the same time. A woman asking for help through what are obviously fake laughs and smiles while hundreds of people just watch on in silence is agonizing. At times the film shows us the full outcome of an interaction, other times we are shown only the first part and forced to guess or infer the rest.

I had no real criticisms of the film. It is definitely hard to watch if vicarious embarrassment is hard for you. I broke it into three or four viewings.

Definitely a must-see (as is Force Majeure!).