Art about art is often tricky to engage with, much less write about. Part of it is an awareness that arises at each moment, which then gets reflected in an endless hall of mirrors. There's a multivalence that can either be invigorating or tiresome, the boundaries of intention and response endlessly intertwined. That certainly describes Ruben Östlund’s The Square, which from its title alone suggests an empty space to be filled in with whatever the viewer desires.
The title actually refers to a piece of art, commissioned by the film's main subject, Christian (Claes Bang), the chief curator of Sweden's X-Royal Museum. It's a literal 4x4 square that per the artist's manifesto is: “a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations.” For a while, however, it's unclear precisely how the Golden Rule-esque sentiment will factor into what starts to look like an acerbic character study of Christian, with his classically handsome features, masculine arrogance and influential position. There isn't so much an overall flow to the film as there is a precise orchestration of discrete blocks. Mixing the formal control of Östlund's Play (particularly that film's use of offscreen space) with the razor-sharp black humor of Force Majeure (also rooted in picking apart a strain of male privilege), The Square gripping from frame one, confident and audacious and thoroughly engrossing. Part of the interest is that it's hard to predict precisely where Östlund will take the film. This is only his fifth feature, and it wasn't until 2011 that he vaulted into the spotlight with Play, so unlike more established directors, there hasn't been enough time for his methods to calcify into schtick.
Even after Christian is robbed by a pickpocket scheme and the main threads and themes begin to emerge—art and performance, the bystander effect, the socioeconomic contexts in which these occur, among others—there’s still a thrilling sense of the unknown. Off-kilter details, casually deployed push the film into quasi-surrealist territory. (A, shall we say, visitor during a casual hookup is a highlight.) How far, exactly, is he going to push the conceit? That's a question that Östlund clearly enjoys playing with—fitting enough for a film that so explicitly deals with performance. The film's most intense scene occurs during the gala dinner for the new exhibit, where a performance artist takes his act to unexpectedly ugly territory. But where exactly does the performance end? Is the audience also complicit? By the end, there is perhaps only one definable certainty: the artist is in complete control.
With an artist as forceful and accomplished as Östlund, though, that's hardly a bad thing. When Christian decides to distribute threatening letters to the entire apartment building that his stolen phone is tracked to, Östlund adopts the language of horror: claustrophobic hallways and vertiginous stairwells, motion-activated lights rhythmically alternating along with geometric vertical and horizontal compositions. Striking shots abound (Christian standing atop an escalator in a crowded shopping mall), as do a host of memorable character interactions, the highlights of which are probably the post-coital and post-post-coital scenes with Anne (Elisabeth Moss, superb), an American reporter living in Sweden. Östlund’s penchant for provocation, too—which has drawn comparisons to Haneke—is fully evident.
Admittedly, there's a relentless cynicism to the film that can be off-putting. But if the film is too eager to spell out its various themes, even fashioning an labored redemptive coda that counteracts the acerbic humor, it's often too flat-out hilarious to dismiss. A late scene that basically lays out the entire thematic thrust in a video “apology” is didactic, to be sure, but is offset by the sheer entertainment value of watching sincerity—or what looks to be genuine sincerity—morph into a long-winded lecture on personal and societal responsibility in real time.
It's a film sure to divide viewers, in part because the film is never unaware of itself, so everything that could be lobbed at it as criticism could conceivably be twisted into praise and vice versa. (A top-down shot of Christian wading through a sea of garbage could hardly be more pointed.) The metaphor of “The Square” lends itself to so many possible interpretations, so much so that from the first scene, the film floats the question of what is and isn't art. What is an image, after all, but what is and isn't in the frame? But whether The Square is a masterpiece or complete garbage (or both?), at the very least, it's a pleasure to see a talented, confident filmmaker so committed to thinking outside the box.