It’s safe to say that Ruben Ostlund’s The Square was a surprising winner of Cannes 2017’s Palme d’Or. It was up against brutal deep dives into human suffering like A Gentle Creature and Loveless as well as new entries from festival favourites like Robin Campillo’s 120 BPM. Hell, this odd, funny, intriguing, yet slight Swedish satire even beat a Haneke movie on the renowned auteur’s favoured turf. Though there were certainly a few films in competition that would have made more worthy winners (You Were Never Really Here, Killing of a Sacred Deer, and Good Time in particular) it’s hard to begrudge The Square its success, with a proper self-effacing sense of fun coursing through the whole film.
The Square is Sweden’s entry into the American awards season’s Foreign Language categories, but a large part of the film is in English as Stockholm modern art museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) introduces a new exhibit to the international press. The piece is the Square of the title, a space set aside in a courtyard inside which people are obliged to show one another kindness and respect. Obviously, this launch does not go as planned, slowly but surely unravelling Christian’s life (with the aid of a surreal conflict between him and a furious 12 year old boy).
As a character study, The Square is great, revelling in its luxurious 150 minute runtime to paint a detailed picture of Christian and the people he surrounds himself with. Even with big-name English language stars like Elisabeth Olsen and Dominic West, the is absolutely the Claes Bang show, and Ostlund does an excellent job capturing the details of his professional difficulties, inconsistent fatherhood, and the intricacies of friendships with lower-paid coworkers. As a political piece, it’s less effective, its attempts to bitingly contrast the opulence of the high art world with the plight of Stockholm’s homeless unsubtle and rather tacked on.
What keeps everything ticking along at the fantastic pace set by Ostlund is the through line of proper laughs. What starts out as rather dry humour, wrung from a precise understanding of the power and limits of the social contract, becomes far funnier, and a mid-film sex scene is that rare sort of hilarious where your laughter eventually winds you, leaving you in a silent shudder. As the story starts to barrel toward its conclusion, it takes a turn for the more bizarre, gaining the power to genuinely, albeit briefly, frighten.
Bang is hugely charismatic in a role bound to launch him on to the international stage. He thrives in both Swedish and English, his accent changing to an impeccable RP British whenever he interacts with foreign press or artists, and he’s infectiously funny in both languages. Moss and West get far more limited screen time, and of the English-speaking cast it’s actually mo-cap veteran Terry Notary who makes the biggest impact, in a wordless role as Russian performance artist Oleg. Experienced as he is in playing apes – starring in both War for the Planet of the Apes and Kong Skull Island – Notary makes a startling impression in his single, showstopping scene in which he takes a chimpanzee impersonation far beyond the point of comfort.
Amusing, and then terrifying, a group of high-profile museum donors at a banquet, Oleg not only pushes the boundaries of performance art within the film, but should spark conversations amongst viewers about how far artists should be willing to go. If nothing else, it’s a scene that proves that all art, even a shirtless man on all fours hooting at diners, is inherently political, the strangest and most admirable achievement in a film that never fails to hold your interest.