Tuesday, November 7, 2017

THE SQUARE: Ruben Östlund's Cannes winner boldly explores the western world's hypocrisy

OK. Ruben Östlund may indeed be something of a smartypants (as certain reviewers would have you believe), but the "smart" part of that word Mr. Östlund possesses in spades. If Force Majeure and now THE SQUARE are any indication, this fellow is a bold, inventive and creative filmmaker who knows what he wants to say and how to deliver it in an entertaining, surprising, thought-provoking fashion. Anyone who can keep me (not to mention my often less-than-easy-moviegoing spouse) glued to the screen for two-and-one-half hours, as he does with this latest endeavor, and make it feel like maybe only as long as a 90-minute movie, has my vote.

To my mind, what Östlund, shown at right, is doing here is nothing less than indicting today's western society for all its many and major sins. He tackles everything from the art world and its big-money benefactors to family values, PR/marketing, feminism, free speech, the masculine ego, political correctness and more. And nobody gets off the hook: not the wealthy, the poor or those in between. That he does all this while situating his film in Sweden -- one of several Scandinavian countries long known for their progressive, forward-looking, pro-people values -- makes the indictment all the more powerful. And maybe more difficult to accept. Setting the film in the USA would have been too easy, particularly these days. But handing it to us from one of the countries many of us so admire is really rubbing-it-the-fuck-in.

The filmmaker's main character (played by the suddenly memorable Danish actor Claes Bang, above) is named, and probably not coincidentally, Christian, and he's the head of a popular and prestigious art museum where he is planning a new and important show. Divorced but also a reasonably caring father of two girls, he is first shown to us waking up from a nap and having to do yet another interview with a journalist. Then later, on his way to work, when someone (a woman, it sounds like) screams for help but no one immediately comes to her aid, Christian and one other fellow do. From there, surprise topples upon surprise and we are soon utterly hooked.

The Sweden we see here -- from the art museum to the marketing firm who handles its needs, to the poor who beg, and the folk who (mostly) don't pay attention to them -- is expectedly, maybe wonderfully diverse. Pets and children are welcomed in a workplace where women have risen to (or very near) the top. Much of the society we see here is just as we might want it -- but so seldom get it.

And yet, humanity's penchant for hypocrisy keeps spurting out like the cum that fills Christian's condom (post-sex with that journalist, played by the marvelously reliable and increasingly versatile Elizabeth Moss, above), the laying-to-rest of which becomes one of the film's funniest and most provocative set pieces.

The museum's dinner for its benefactors, together with the entertainment provided (above), is another of these. But perhaps the most special and incisive continuing thread throughout the movie pertains to stolen property, all that goes into its retrieval, and the unintended consequences that follow.

How Östlund threads it all together, while making us laugh and wince and drop our jaw is simply a marvel. And to those who call the film, as did The New York Times' A.O. Scott, "complacent, craven and clueless," I can only wonder if they are demanding something sweeter and more humane. Not here, buddy. Human, yes, you'll get plenty of that. And if you do not find some, maybe much, of your own behavior mirrored here (if you are man or woman enough to admit it, that is), I shall be very surprised.

From Magnolia Pictures and running an amazingly swift 152 minutes, The Square opened in the cultural centers a week or so back and hits South Florida this Friday, November 10, in the Miami area at both the Tower Theater and the Miami Beach Cinematheque, as well as elsewhere around the country. Wherever you live, click here to find the theater(s) nearest you.

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