If you like a film-maker’s scolding messages delivered with a sledgehammer instead of pointed arrows, you will appreciate The Square as much as the judges who awarded it the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Beginning as a satirical jab at the contemporary art world, we see Christian, the curator of a prominent Swedish museum, struggle to interpret his own art-babble to a reporter who quotes it back to him in an interview. We also see the emperor’s clothes current exhibition consisting of piles of gravel - some of which are eventually swept up by the janitor; and we see the soon to open conceptual Square - another pathetic stab at such lofty abstractions as helping humanity and insisting on equality and trust. As the counterpoint to all the empty blather, Christian is confronted on the street by a woman screaming for help and running away from someone off camera who is trying to kill her. At first a bystander, Christian joins another man in trying to protect the woman from the enraged man who comes into focus and is restrained by these two good samaritans. After congratulating themselves for their good deed, Christian walks off and discovers that he has been robbed of his wallet, his phone and his cuff-links.
The film works best when director Ruben Ostlund confines himself to showing Christian’s self-delusions - his forgetting to pick up his two daughters after school, his willingness to drive off without stopping to see what or whom he has obviously run over, his unwillingness to see or help the omnipresent homeless begging on the streets of Stockholm. But Ostlund insists on upping the ante, not trusting his audience to perceive the disconnect between proclaimed lofty values and society’s indifference and lack of historical understanding of what has caused the enormous chasm between the haves and have-nots. Because he restricts himself solely to the sins of our own culture, these remain hackneyed observations which culminate in two shocking and violent scenes Though they make us increasingly uncomfortable, the material is too thin and obvious to succeed as a political allegory of racism, colonialism, the evils of capitalism and all the other shop-worn tropes of what’s wrong with Judaeo-Christian culture.
Elizabeth Moss appears as the reporter who has a one-night stand with the handsome curator and returns to challenge him for being someone who uses women as a way of exercising his power over them. In his defense, Christian challenges her for not admitting that she is , in fact, turned on precisely by that power. Given the prevailing absorption in this subject right now, that thought may be the least cliched observation in the film. If you have the stamina to sit through a two and a half hour film that is well-acted and wryly observed ( a baby and a dog serve as de rigeur accessories in the modern workplace), this movie has something to offer. If you are put off by self-righteous Europeans who find the root of all evil in the sins of our culture alone, you may want to skip the preaching and wallow in the remake of Dynasty instead. It’s much less pretentious.
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