This Swedish Palme d’Or-winning film is a sprawling satire of the contemporary art world and is a bit like a modern art installation itself: you’re not always sure about the artist’s intent, it may feel baffling, confronting or tedious, but at its best it can leave you with some indelible imagery and food for thought.
The film is mostly presented as a loose collection of sketches and setpieces, with two main storylines focusing on Christian (Claes Bang), a suave director of a contemporary art museum in Stockholm who is the very epitome of a stylish, sophisticated European living a privileged lifestyle. The gallery is preparing for a new exhibition centred on an art piece called “The Square”, a neon-lit square of sidewalk outside the museum which is meant to be a sanctuary of trust and caring, where people are obligated to treat each other with kindness. The young and hip PR team convince him that the premise of the exhibition is not going to generate heat by itself, and that they need some sort of bold and provocative publicity stunt to grab the attention.
Meanwhile, Christian’s comfortable and well-ordered life takes a hit when he loses his wallet and phone in a brilliantly executed pickpocketing scam out in broad daylight (before he discovers the scam, his little adventure leaves him thrilled and invigorated as if by a brilliant piece of performance art). He and his assistant are able to track down the phone through an app to a working-class neighbourhood, and in a moment of strange bravado, Christian sets out to exact justice by dropping an accusing letter into every single mailbox in the building. What at first seemed like a great idea eventually has very unwelcome consequences, which force Christian to take a long hard look at himself and his assumptions about the people who exist on the outskirts of his life.
The film is a smorgasbord of memorable setpieces, which in turn are surreal, comical and uncomfortable. Many ordinary scenes are made dissonant and strange by something as simple as everyday noise – a crying baby brought into a meeting, construction noise in the background of a personal conversation. An onstage discussion with a famous artist is interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s. Christian has a brief affair with an American TV interviewer (Elisabeth Moss), who has a highly unusual house pet and has a bizarre and hilarious argument with Christian over a condom.
The showstopper however is a sequence set during a grand dinner for the museum’s wealthy patrons and celebrities, where they are treated to a performance by an artist who impersonates an ape. His method-style commitment takes the act way, way past the comfort zone of both the onscreen guests and, I suspect, many viewers in the real-life cinema. It’s a deeply unsettling scene to say the least.
That The Square doesn’t come off as simply mocking and cold is partly due to the humanity Claes Bang brings to the character of Christian, who ultimately comes off as sympathetic despite his ivory-tower snobbery. Maybe it’s because it’s very easy to find the reflections of his flaws in yourself.