Ruben Östlund found great critical success with Force Majeure back in 2014, and now The Square took the Palme d’Or at Cannes, capping of quite the successful few years for the Swedish director. The Square is a biting satire of the contemporary art world, taking its title from an exhibition planned by chief curator Christian (Claes Bang) for the X-Royal, his museum in Stockholm. The film ties several threads together: the disastrous PR campaign for the Square; the pickpocketing and recovery of Christian’s phone and wallet; the residence and promotion of a famous artist, Julian (Dominic West); and Christian’s family and love life, particularly his involvement with a reporter, Anne (Elizabeth Moss).
These are all means to elicit a deliciously vicious takedown of the commercial corruption of the contemporary art world, its juxtaposition with poverty and homelessness, and the enduring invincibility of male privilege. Christian is the monster, but he’s a monster with immaculately cool glasses and effortlessly good hair. He glides his way from one heinous decision to another, never really seeing past the end of his own nose or outside the windows of his Tesla.
The good graces of his overwhelming old, white, rich patrons are all that really concern him. He responds to the theft of his personal items by threatening and denigrating the entire block of flats where he believes they ended up; when this stokes conflict, he has no idea how to talk and relate to the less affluent people that live there, trying to send his black employee in to do it for him.
There are wonderfully surreal moments, bordering on the absurdist, particularly around his relationship with Anne and his inflated sense of his importance and desirability. The most remarkable scene in the film involves the superb mo-cap actor Terry Notary as a performance artist aggressively terrifying a ballroom full of rich dinner guests; like much of the film’s best-aimed satire, it feels so close to the truth that it may well have already happened somewhere in the high-ceilinged galleries of the contemporary art world.
It’s certainly a worthy Palme d’Or winner, and (in my opinion) funnier and more engaging than the other satirical darling, The Death of Stalin. The only criticism might be that some of the most incisive jokes – like the eye-wateringly vacuous and offensive pitch from the PR agency – might only land with the very people being satirised. But nonetheless, it’s a hilarious couple of hours, that might cause a few gallery trustees to take a hard look at both themselves, and where their money goes.
The Square opened in the UK on Friday 16th March 2018 and is currently playing in selected cinemas.