Cannes 2017: Ruben Östlund’s The Square

“If he hadn’t already laid claim to the title of king of the cringe-inducing confrontation and nabob of the nervous laugh with the withering Force Majeure, Ruben Östlund truly anoints himself with The Square, an excoriating razor-burn of a movie that deploys drollery like an instrument of torture,” begins Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “Broadening out his canvas from the family dynamics of his previous avalanche movie before slashing it to similarly precise shreds, The Square is made up of dozens of scenes of such perfect, short-story polish and bite that it almost feels like a vignette anthology rather than a feature. And yet, at least until an unfortunate slackening of pace and a slight dulling of edge toward the end of a long two hours and twenty minutes, the scathing sensibility remains a constant, dark delight.”

Variety’s Owen Gleiberman suggests that “Östlund creates suspense the old-fashioned way, setting up scenes that make the audience go: What in God’s name is going to happen next? But he also creates suspense in a new-fangled way, turning the space between people into an alarming existential battleground. He’s like Hitchcock infused with the spirit of mid-period Bergman.”

The Square turns a contemporary art museum into a city-state of bizarre, dysfunctional and Ballardian strangeness,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw. “It is a place where one important person’s guilt infects an entire society with a creeping nervous breakdown, at once intensified and yet camouflaged by a notional belief in aesthetic nonconformism and provocative performance art. This movie really brings some gobsmackingly weird and outrageous spectacle, with moments of pure show-stopping freakiness. Eventually it loses a bit of focus and misses some narrative targets which have been sacrificed to those admittedly extraordinary set pieces. It doesn’t have the pure weapon-like clarity of Östlund’s previous film Force Majeure. But it sets out to make your jaw drop. And it succeeds.”

“Christian (Claes Bang, a dead-ringer for a 40-something Gregory Peck), is chief curator for the ultra-hip, ultra-chic X-Royal Museum,” explains Barbara Scharres at “He’s handsome, pretentious, and arrogant in the privilege and power that make him the peer of the wealthy. . . . In the episodic construction of The Square, and its deadpan approach to comedy, Östlund’s work begins to resemble that of another Swedish film satirist, Roy Andersson (A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence). Östlund is not quite that good yet, but he’s getting there.”

“So far-out is some of the stuff that goes on at the X-Royal Museum that it momentarily looks as though the film will emerge as a full-fledged comedy, but it’s the mix of mordant humor and sulfurous weirdness that defines its true nature,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “Christian’s private life remains little explored for a long while, until he finally engages in a one-night stand with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss), earlier seen conducting an inept interview with him, who later attempts to engage in a far more uncomfortable sort of probing; she also seems to have a chimpanzee as a flat-mate.”

The Square is at its best doing just two of the many things it essays,” argues Lee Marshall in Screen. “The first is to use a municipal contemporary art museum—conceived by Östlund and architect Gert Wingårdh as a Modernist space inserted into the fabric of Stockholm’s Royal Palace—to probe in comic but also serious ways how we engage with culture, power, and each other. The second is to chart the undoing of a cocky, polished aesthete turned businessman and politician, whose downward trajectory begins when he tries to let his alpha male side out of its cage. But in all its flawed brilliance, The Square remains an original, visceral, uncomfortable and essential viewing experience.”

Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage: “The Old Testament rule of law vibe in Östlund’s films—thematically similar in some ways to the Coens’ Fargo—is designed to elicit that exquisitely excruciating pain of watching a character be repeatedly given a chance to get out of the awful situation they have gotten themselves into only to let it pass by, usually for no reason other than to save face or maintain an already lost status quo.”

“It is a film both frustrating and jocular, as well as stimulating and astute as it explores our attitudes of appropriateness and how pushing boundaries can have terrifyingly restrictive effects on the collective consensus of good taste and what’s considered the politically correct,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema.

“It's so slick, intelligent, subversive, and yet so damn entertaining,” adds Alex Billington at First Showing. But at CineVue, John Bleasdale finds that “it's in the last half that Östlund's thumb on the scales begins to leave a print. . . . The pummeling of liberal guilt and hypocrisy also feels badly timed in the age that coined ‘libtard’ and Christian himself seems to behave inconsistently almost as if he is doing so at the behest of some point the director wants to make, rather than from motivations of character.”

“When we are in public spaces and don’t know who’s in charge, we have a problem with taking responsibility,” Östlund tells Variety’s Alissa Simon. “For me, it was a way to point out how we are herd animals, how we are paralyzed when something happens that we are scared of and the feeling is, ‘don’t take me, don’t take me, take someone else!’”

Updates, 5/21: Östlund has “aimed his crosshairs at the sham humanitarianism of high society, and if that sounds like shooting fish in a barrel, the writer-director keeps it sporting by resisting making his prey total caricatures, into straw men for the sniping,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “He’s a student of human pretension. Also, he can execute a gag with steel-trap precision.”

“Östlund’s eye for the subtleties of human behavior, especially public behavior, never fails,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “And by the end he finds at least one functional human interaction, at a cheerleading meet of all places, among armies of pigtailed girls hitting their marks and holding each other up. We overhear a coach giving a pep talk to a disappointed member of the squad. ‘Don’t waste energy feeling sorry for yourself,’ he says with firm affection. ‘Correct it and move on.’ Nobody else in The Square has the emotional maturity of a cheerleader.”

“Östlund at his best can have his cake and push it in your face,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Even so . . . there’s real compassion and concern here, which often emerges as a kind of antidote, or anti-punchline, to the latest cosmic micro-aggressions. . . . Slow burn—and at almost two and a half hours, the burn here is positively languid—has a culminative force that can’t be resisted.”

“Like Michael Haneke with a funny bone instead of a magnifying glass, Ruben Östlund’s vision of humanity is a bleak, almost faithless caricature of our most craven impulses,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman at Little White Lies.

“If the film has any flaw, it could be that it juggles too many good ideas,” suggests Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “But why complain about that?”

More in Spanish from Diego Lerer.

And Screen’s Wendy Mitchell talks with Östlund: “You know I love awkward situations.” And talking to Steven Zeitchik in the Los Angeles Times, he adds, “I love thinking that people in a screening sitting silent in tuxedos are watching people on-screen sitting silent in tuxedos.”

Updates, 5/22: “For all its immaculate polish, The Square turns out to be not a tidy exercise in clinical detachment but a ferocious drama of conscience,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “And for all the scorn it heaps upon Christian’s rarefied milieu, it’s entirely sincere in its acknowledgment that art—this movie itself being a thorny and fascinating example—can tell us things about ourselves we’d rather not know.”

“At length, as Östlund keeps reworking largely similar ideas with ever more spite but dwindling vigor, the cumulative effect is an expression of condescending, all-embracing contempt,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia for Sight & Sound. “This is reinforced by Östlund’s penchant for wanting to have it both ways: he condemns the absence of solidarity in Swedish society, yet Christian gets robbed because he comes to the aid of a scammer pretending to be in need of help; he posits that individuals must take responsibility and work against discriminatory social constructs, yet when Christian does finally overcome his cowardice and attempts to do the right thing, all he achieves is further punishment. If man really is beyond redemption and the social contract is but an irreparable farce, what are we supposed to draw from The Square’s virulent didacticism?”

“Admittedly, there's a relentless cynicism to the film that can be off-putting,” grants Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook. “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.”

“Östlund’s story veers off in so many directions that it’s almost like he can’t decide if any of them are worth the trip,” writes Eric Kohn at IndieWire. “At once a high-minded art world satire and a Curb Your Enthusiasm-style cringe comedy, it’s a tale of identity crisis that faces one of its own.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 3/5) and Bénédicte Prot at Cineuropa, where you’ll also find a video interview with Östlund.

Update, 5/23: “The frame is always palpable and intrusive in Östlund’s cinema, closing us off from the spatial contexts that might alleviate a given scenario’s tension,” writes Blake Williams, dispatching to Filmmaker, “and this compositional approach fits nicely in a movie about featuring art piece that is a literal square boundary. Elsewhere, another conceptual piece in the museum—a simple white neon text reading ‘YOU HAVE NOTHING’—is also played for laughs, and a lecture is thrown into chaos by attendee with Tourette’s having a fit. I know Östlund likes to push buttons, but come on.”

Updates, 5/24:Bilge Ebiri for the Village Voice: “When left to its own devices, does humanity find equilibrium, or does it disintegrate into aggressors and subjects? And just what does it take for us to come to others’ aid? The Square has a remarkably clear-headed and streamlined way of asking these questions, but the answers it provides are always tantalizingly unclear.”

“Östlund’s new movie has an episodic quality, with each subplot potentially substantial enough to warrant its own hour-long installment,” writes Tim Grierson for Paste. “And like great postmodern art, the film resists easy interpretation so as to allow the viewer a chance to inhabit the work in his or her own way.”

“Eventually, the film does run out of steam—coinciding with Christian’s inevitably reaching a breaking point—but for almost the entirety of its running time it remains a delight,” writes Tommaso Tocci for the International Cinephile Society.

The Square is one of the films discussed in the latest Film Comment Podcast (59’45”).

Update, 5/26: For Film Comment editor Nicolas Rapold, “most surprising, and little remarked upon, was the reactionary bent of Östlund’s satire. Let’s set aside the fact that the art world has . . . parodied itself, to such an extent that even the film’s best-tuned gags can feel familiar. More tiresome is that Östlund, in targeting liberal Swedish guilt, all too often evokes a disgruntled middle-aged man’s cynicism about contemporary values of sensitivity and tolerance.”

Update, 5/29: “I love that we never actually refer to the monkey, which begs the question of, ‘Is it even real?’” Moss tells Vulture’s Jada Yuan. “Like, we never refer to it. I never speak to it. No one ever speaks to it. It’s never mentioned. So weird.”

Update, 7/4: In Cinema Scope,Josh Cabrita calls The Square “a rambunctious lark, puerile and playful, and too often given to moralistic explanation. It works more as a series of provocations eliciting a wide range of audience responses than a diatribe on inequality, but the always ambitious Östlund wants to have it both ways.”

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