Cannes Review: 'The Square' is unlike anything you've seen before at the movies

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The Square" is a movie that dares to challenge political correctness in its ferociously unhinged tackle of human psyche. What exactly binds us to communicate and be civil to each other is what its writer director Ruben Ostlund asks. The answer is much more complicated than a simple answer and, it seems, that by the movie's end he still hasn't really found the answer to his own question. The episodic nature of "The Square" recalls a hybrid mix of "Leos Carax' "Holy Motors" and Maren Ade's "Toni Erdmann" in its unrestrained attempt at a comedy of manners. It works brilliantly, for the most part, as Ostlund stages one crazed set-piece after another, upping the ante with every one until we arrive to a high-Brow museum dinner featuring a monkey-man terrorizing its guests. I will say no more. In fact, the less you know about "The Square," the better it will likely be.

“The Square” is set in Stockholm, and has its chief curator, Christian (Claes Bang), coasting through life with a succesful job, any woman he wants and the confidence of loyal staff and friends. However, from the opening scene something is not right. An air of overstuffed confidence reigns over an enlarged ego, to make matters worse, he seems to look down upon people that don't share his own white-privileged lifestyle.

The title of the film comes from the Museum's new exhibit called The Square, which Christian concots along with his team of resourceful minds. The genesis and meaning of the project has to do with social mdia,  a literal square  representing the space everyone in society shares responsibility to care for each other but, through a series of highly entertaining, but unfortunate events in the film, Christian will realize that his idea of The Square is a bit naive, for there is darkness and betrayal that looms in human nature. 

As the film goes along, you realize that the museum is more about the bottom line and monetizing than it is about making a difference through the power of art. Ostlund creates a scathing satire of the modern art world through the eyes of a corrupt curator. The marketing for the exhibit is also absurd. His social media team concocts a YouTube video that they intend to be a vial sensation, and it does become just that, but at the expense of a major scandal that could have Christian lose his job. In the video,a poor homeless girl is blown up in the middle of a square as a way to sell the “compassion.” Even worse, a trendy, high-class dinner is set-up for promotion, with the 1% of Sweden showing up. To say it backfires would be an understatement. The provocation Christian intends that evening, featuring an “ape man” (Terry Notary), is nevertheless mesmerizing for the viewer as we watch the evolutionary process take place. It's fight and flight mod for the elites and they can't escape it. To say more about this sequence, the "piece de resistance" of the film, would do a disservice to the surprises it springs. 

The aforementioned sequence, which happens around the 2 hour mark, is so absurdly disgusting, shocking, and need we mention brilliant, that Ostlund just doesn't have anything else to top it off with after that. The last 20 or so minutes of this outrageously inventive film have Ostlund struggling to knit his vision together into a satisfying ending. At that point in the film Ostlund had invited us to, with every passing frame, expect the unexpected. The last 20 minutes of the film the writer director decides to take a step back from his antics and build up some kind of emotional substance to his characters and story, a well-intentioned mistake. The brilliant moments in the film should come as no surprise to well-seasoned cinephiles, Ostlund was marked as a talent to watch after "Force Majeure," his 2014 festival hit, put him on the mark with critics worldwide. In that film he used a more subtle tone for his own cringe worthy cinema to focus on the collapse of male manhood in Swedish society. Nevertheless, that film shares many similarities to "The Square" in terms of the tone and unabashedly sardonic wit that Ostlund displays towards his characters and story.