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'The Square' is an ambitious, darkly comic satire of the art world

Other | Wednesday 21st March 2018 | David

The chasm between the cultural elite and society’s poor and needy has rarely felt wider than in The Square, Ruben Östlund’s ambitious, darkly comic indictment of the narcissism and hypocrisy of the seemingly liberal world of modern art.

Denmark’s Claes Bang stars as Christian, the sheltered, promiscuous curator of the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm. He’s just the sort of calculated, image-conscious showman who’ll brush past the homeless people and charity workers on his commute to the museum before preaching empathy and equality to his establishment’s wealthy benefactors. The next big exhibition waiting to be publicised is centred on ‘The Square’, a new art piece intended to provide a sanctuary for trust, caring and equal rights for all.

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Such idealistic values are rarely on display in the film’s chaotic series of conflicts that peel away the sanitised layers of this complacent community. Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale, Mad Men) and Dominic West (The Wire) get their searing moments in the sun as a journalist and a renowned artist respectively. But it is in the story of Christian retrieving his stolen smartphone and wallet through dubious methods before dealing with the collateral damage of his mission that the film generally gets the most satirical mileage.

Take an early sequence in which Christian and his colleague Michael pull up to an apartment complex in ‘The Tesla of Justice’ and deliver threatening letters to the entire building in an effort to suss out the culprits. As the mood progresses from the initial thrill of adventure to the eventual panic and guilt of two men unaccustomed to being in the poorer parts of town, this tensely orchestrated passage offers a scathing and hilarious display of class privilege run amok that foreshadows the increasingly disconcerting tone of the film’s second half.

Not every scene hits its mark so well. The film’s bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime is both generous and unearned, suggesting that Östlund’s biting commentary and sharp characterisations would have cut all the more deeply if he didn’t try to say so much all in one go. But if The Square isn’t quite the all-encompassing mirror to the times that it strives to be, it nonetheless offers a witty, often troubling vision of the eternal trainwreck that is our social, political and cultural climate.

The Square is in UK cinemas now!

 

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