Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

We're all in 'The Square'


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The 2017 Palme d'Or at Cannes is a must-see for aesthetes who have lost faith in the power of art to surprise, enlighten, and transform. This reverent farce about the escapades of an art-world player is a 150-minute inquiry into the meaning of meaning, very open to interpretation, that will provoke discussion, reflection, and self-correction. Toggling seamlessly between Swedish and English, this serious comedy resists cynicism as it questions societal breakdown in Europe with sufficient largesse of spirit to implicate the effete elite globally. Be there for "The Square," at Alamo and Embarcadero in San Francisco, Shattuck in Berkeley, or Rafael Film Center, starting Nov. 10.

Our failed hero is curator of the X-Royal Gallery in Stockholm, which, like the Louvre, is an ex-royal palace turned state-sponsored art museum. Tall, handsome, with a shock of dark hair and stubble offset by silly red glasses, Christian (Claes Bang) is a naturally weathered, bilingual Swede in his 50s. While overseeing The Square, an exhibit symbolizing "a sanctuary of trust and caring," he's ironically robbed in a public square. He gets his wallet and cell phone back, but in the process places a young boy from a housing project in jeopardy. Christian's hypocritical indifference to the boy's plight is the crux of the matter, his cruel refusal to come to his aid a shocking transgression.

Without letting his rich white male protagonist off the hook, director Ruben Ostlund transforms the problem of social inequities into a highly diverting, deeply unsettling comedy of manners that ends not in disaster but with an invitation. Rich, poor, male, female, native, immigrant, we meet every day in shared social space bereft of the shared beliefs that once helped us bridge differences. Oppositional discourse only gets you so far. As the social safety net shreds, how do we defuse paranoia? Beautifully choreographed and filmed as a subtly absurdist fauxcumentary, tweaked but scathingly true to life, "The Square" articulates the daily existential conundrums we all face.

Elizabeth Moss has a small but juicy part to play, bringing to this Swedish art-film a big American attitude, not to say ass, which is relatable, especially post-Harvey Weinstein. You don't have to like her to appreciate her portrayal of an aggressively inept interviewer who opens the film questioning Christian about the power of context to define art. Her gift for willful unattractiveness functions here as a pink-lipsticked hurdle. Christian reflexively beds her in a grueling one-night-stand. Moss later gives him a pseudo-feminist tongue-lashing about her hoped-for "emotional connection," underscoring the gap between her erotic delusion and his reality.

In a parallel tangent, Dominic West wears baby-blue PJs under a double-breasted coat to exemplify the contemporary artist as a fatuous cog in a self-perpetuating machine of display. Slouched on a chair across from the X-Royal's 60-something bourgeois blonde director, he drawls vacuous replies to her obvious questions. Anxiety builds as an audience member erupts in odd noises and obscene words, until his wife apologizes: it's Tourette's syndrome. The artist's talk drones on, despite its being thoroughly upstaged by a neurobiological tic that can't be asked to leave the room because political correctness has paralyzed common sense.

A brutal variation on that thesis comes near the climax, when an ape-man acts out at an opulent donors' dinner. This artist's performance, testing the limits of tolerance and good manners, makes a monkey out of everyone. Terry Notary, a motion-capture "Planet of the Apes" behemoth, is all in-your-face mockery and menace in the time-honored tradition of primates without a cause. Finally, no takedown of the museum industry would be complete without social media presence. Two pompous young publicists, dead-set on wrenching media numbers from terrorists and natural disasters, produce a viral video promoting The Square by undermining what it stands for.

Structurally, "The Square" is fresh, clean, innovative. Opponents square off in vignettes that play like self-contained performance pieces, their spontaneous edge well-scripted and spliced, the conflict left open-ended. The pace is brisk but calm enough for the contemplative viewer to take everything in and come up hopeful. There's inner logic at work that evokes Western anxiety but refuses to service our dread. Ostlund walks a narrow knife's edge between insecurity and faith, a line we all walk every day. It's shocking to feel the optimism underlying all these displays of systemic dysfunction in a culture too often given up for dead.

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