Cannes champ ‘The Square’ a mass-appealing delight

The Square’s publicity imagery is based completely around this isolated scene, in which Oleg (Planet of the Apes franchise veteran Terry Notary) imitates an ape and attacks the scene’s 300 extras as “art.” The scene is based on a real-life act by Oleg Kulik. Despite being seemingly disconnected from the rest of the film, this scene, and this image, brilliantly captures the tone and message of The Square. Image courtesy Magnolia Pictures.

9/10 The Square might just be the most broadly appealing film you’ve never heard of.

In Stockholm, museum curator Christian (Claes Bang) hires a public relations team to build press for a new exhibit called The Square, and chaos ensues. American journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss) arrives to interview Christian, and the two become sexually involved. After being robbed, Christian tracks his stolen phone to a nearby apartment complex and leaves a threatening message to all of its tenants, and though his phone and wallet are returned, he’s stalked by a small boy whose parents grounded him over the letter. And the PR firm makes waves in the wrong way when it publishes a commercial for The Square in which a homeless child is bombed.

Despite its Palm d’Or victory, vague artsy marketing and minute release that peaked at 63 theaters, The Square is a surprisingly friendly, accessible film. Its comedic patterns have been drawn many times before, but writer/director/editor Ruben Östlund expertly converts on the film’s satire and absurdism.

Probably the film’s most important strength is its characterization of Christian. From the opening scene when he stumbles through basic questions about his own opinions to his utterly selfish way of handling his phone being lost, it’s always clear what kind of man our hapless, loathsome hero is. Bang follows through with a delectably sincere performance.

The film hinges on its titular installation, which is simply a square of neon lighting laid in brick that Christian describes as, “A sanctuary of trust and caring, in which we all share equal rights and obligations,” and his oblivious hypocrisy. Despite his repeated calls to altruism, he’s shown repeatedly refusing to help anyone but himself, mostly the poor but up to and including his own children. The generically subversive art exhibitions we’re shown in his museum reinforce his hollowness.

Through its lead character, The Square thoroughly lampoons high art culture. It’s a rare satire that’s so well set-up the audience doesn’t need to be at all familiar with the original subject. The original subject doesn’t even need to exist — The Square can simply observe and mock the ideals it’s built on.

Since it’s mostly in Swedish and Americans can’t read, obscurity is the best The Square can ever hope for, and that’s a sad thing. This was one of the most broadly likeable things to come through theaters in a year chalk full of them. Hopefully it’ll get more eyeballs in an awards season re-release.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter @reelentropy, and shoot questions and suggestions to reelentropy@gmail.com.

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