Watching a Very Smart Brothas segment on Darth Beckys and Darth Susans (problematic, appropriative woman) the parallel between Christian--the lead character played by Cleas Bang in Ruben Östlund’s new Palme d’Or-winning film, The Square is clear. Christian, as the slimly handsome director of the X-Royal Museum in Sweden is consumed with a seeming harmless strain of insular narcissism that is gradually reveled to be something much more corrosive.
Östlund, whose credits include the critically lauded Play and Involuntary, co-wrote those movies with Erik Hemmendorff, but for The Square he is the sole auteur. And as he has previously done, he exhibits a willingness to craft sly, gorgeous, uncomfortable, scenes that cast the characters not just in an unflattering light, but a light that reveals who--at their core--they are. The result is the revelation that Christian is kind of a smug, lazy coward who “thinks an awful lot of himself,” in part because he is surrounded by a life and objects of excruciatingly good (reserved and nuanced) taste to prove it.
The plot of The Square ostensibly is very simple: museum director Christian has a new installation that he needs to generate publicity and buzz for. The piece, titled The Square is a square of space--outlined on the ground in the museum’s cobbled courtyard (formerly the spot upon which a “noble” horse and rider bronze statute stood upon a plinth) with a strip of lights. It is supposed to be a tiny arena: “a sanctuary of trust and caring ... within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” Though that’s a noble goal—and reminiscent of Marina Abromovic’s Rhythm 0 and Roman Ondák’s Swap, it’s hard to quantify, especially when the marketing dudes get involved.
It is thus, in the wake of the totally tacky publicity scheme, that Christian’s life takes a few turns that really are the annoyances of life, but it is in his handling of them that his exhausting privilege inflected narcissism is revealed. Christian’s character is a wince-inducingly perfect portrayal of a mid-career, upper level bureaucrat--but in this instance the Byzantine labyrinth being negotiated is the temperamental art world.
In a startling hilarious-yet-sympathetic portrayal of artist “Julian” by Dominic West, the story takes a turn towards violent confrontation and destruction. This is one of the leitmotifs that compels the movie forward, emotional explosions that throw into high relief the fragile and self-satisfied cocoon that comprises Christian’s life.
The movie moves through time slowly--almost luxuriating in paralyzing awkwardness--with a series of vignettes that are each beautifully composed and utterly unblinking. Of special note--and worth the price of admission alone, is Terry Notary’s turn as Oleg, the performance artist who comes to dinner.
Ultimately, Christian’s impotence wed to his entitlement reveals him to be the male corollary to a Darth Becky. Because he too trades in very specific behaviors that allow him to shed responsibility for many of the poor decisions and petty squabbles he gets entangled in, and then backs out of in the least honorable manner imaginable because he can.
Filmed in Swedish and English, this film touches on many of-the-moment ideas and has been criticized for being “misbegotten, boring, mealy-mouthed and pleased with itself,” but that assessment willfully overlooks winking mastery with which Östlund strips bare the mediocre human at the center of the drama. It’s a film that lingers, long after the lights have come up.
The Square opens at Sun Ray Cinema today, Jan. 5 and plays through Jan. 11, 1028 Park St., Riverside, sunraycinema.com.