By Jack Dignan
What is art? Or, alternatively, how do we define art? Just because we put something on display for others to see, does that automatically classify it as art? Does it need to provoke us? Speak to us? Connect with us? It comes in many forms, and it’s this timely question of ‘what is art?’ that propels The Square into its bigger ideologies. Forget ‘what is art.’ What you’re going to want to focus on is ‘what is The Square and what does it mean for you?’
Writer-director Ruben Östlund takes us through the provocative journey of prestige art director Christian (Claes Bang), who’s in the midst of setting up a new think piece at his local museum. This exhibit is called, as you may have guessed, The Square, and it delves into our human connections in ways not everyone might necessarily be comfortable with. The exhibit stirs up controversy, and this leads Christian down both a professional and personal crisis where our separation as human beings takes the forefront as he’s forced to look at the bigger pictures of life.
It’s not so much a splice of life film as it is a carefully calculated sequence of loosely connected events all playing into the film’s greater purpose. The Square tries its hardest to get a reaction out of you, and for the most part, it works. This darkly comedic drama uses its big, bold ideas to call out each and every one of us, using art as a front to reach its striking themes. It plays out almost like a satire, tearing down the boundaries of class and social hierarchy to show the upper class as being on the same level as, say, someone living on the street.
The central messages are important, no doubt, but they’re far from subtle. Östlund’s script, while effective, does have a tendency to beat you over the head with what he’s trying to say, in the third act especially. He goes from subtle storytelling with subliminal messaging to blatantly stating what he’s trying to get across, and it doesn’t always flow as naturally as he might like. His themes are certainly relevant. He delves into topics that, while certainly thought about, aren’t given as much attention as other equally important social issues. A lot of his execution is genius and provoking; a lot of it throws it right in your face.
In his search for a reaction, a stellar supporting cast is brought on board, making this overtly overstretched movie never boring. Sure, you could easily cut out twenty minutes tops, especially in the over-extended third act (if this film can even be defined by acts), but you’re always compelled by what’s going on screen, even if you’re not exactly sure why. Claes Bang gives a stellar performance as Christian, while Elisabeth Moss balances out the more heavy-handed elements with sequences of genuine shock and gut-bursting humour. An argument between the two in relation to a condom is an absolute knockout.
This entire film, however, will no-doubt be known for its sequence in which a character called Oleg (Terry Notary), who spends his time imitating a monkey for an exhibit, is let loose at a prestigious dinner party. When it begins, you’re never sure if what you’re watching is serious or comedic, and what unfolds evokes the strongest of reactions. This whole film is a testament to its craft. It’ll stir a reaction within you, no doubt, and it’s thanks to the genius of the filmmaking. Some of these shots are absolute all-timers, most of the scenes the same. For lovers of cinema, The Square is for you.
3 1/2 Stars
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