The Square

Dec 4, 2017

Although it won Cannes' big award, it's a satirical mosaic sometimes spot on, sometimes obscure.

The Square

Grade: A-

Director: Ruben Ostlund (Force Majeure)

Screenplay: Ostlund

Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss (Mad to be Normal)

Rating: R

Runtime: 2 hr 22 min

by John DeSando

“A sanctuary of trust and caring”:  a performance piece of art’s signature, a square that reflects the irony of the remote privileged in this satire.

The last time I was with a Ruben Ostlund film, Force Majeure, I was watching a hair-raising avalanche. With The Square, the catastrophe is in Stockholm with the human race under a figurative pile of danger from its growing distance from the public.

With the deft camera work and themes of a Hitchcock and the bleak outlook of Bergman-wearied characters, writer/director Ostlund presents a comedic allegory about modern art and its ambivalent obscurity as well as a trenchant satire of the disparity between the rich and the poor. Along the way he lampoons our society’s distrust for each other and suspicion of outsiders. It’s quite a discursive screed with 142 minutes to play and occasionally confuse.

This heavy-duty comedy is expertly couched in a semi-thriller when protagonist Christian (Claes Bang), chief curator of a progressive Stockholm, publicly-funded art museum, is entangled in events that threaten his job and his sense of self worth, notwithstanding his safety in his bubbled world.

Beginning with an ingenious robbery and cresting with a furor over an exhibit that hasn’t even shown yet, the cocky, Pierce-Brosnan-handsome womanizer is faced with a public that is trying to see how inclusive he really is.  A distracting reporter, Anne (Elizabeth Moss), may have other things to do with a used condom. That she participates in a high-stakes battle of the sexes seems sure. Otherwise it’s just a condom conundrum.

Besides the unsettling blowback he gets from the poor and immigrants, largely because of a misguided museum promo, he is equally unsuccessful with his children and a child caught in a stupid act after his mugging. As he chases the latter in the child’s tenement, Ostlund has several shots looking down a long spiraling staircase, reminiscent of a vertiginous Hitchcock hero lost in his growing insanity.

Anyone who sees this complex film will not forget the banquet scene of humanity’s humiliation and the strange chimp Anne keeps in her apartment. They are connected to the theme of a barbaric and darkly evolved mankind. Enough said; see the scene and try to keep your jaw closed. As for the chimp, I can only guess.

I need to stop here because the intricate plot is such a fascinating puzzle that I should not unwind it for you, even if I’m unsure of my own take on it. Suffice it to say, this Cannes Palme d’Or winner deserves its award despite the confusion of some critics I admire. Just sayin’ it worked for me and the Cannes jury.

John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at