THE SQUARE (2017, Ruben Östlund)
A sharp and sticky provocation that manages to transcend its didacticism and become something unshakable. Take, for example, the big voicemail scene towards the end. It sounds like Christian is spelling out the movie’s themes, and in a way he is. But then he goes on too long, well past the point you’d expect him to stop, and the speech takes on a different tone. Now it’s about character, not content.
It’s the sly, clever character development throughout that gives this lecture its flavor, most notably in the Elisabeth Moss scenes, which explore the stubbornness that Christian would need to handle every issue the way he handles it in the back half of the film. And his name — Christian — maybe not the most subtle clue, but this is really a movie about turning the other cheek, helping the poor, and doing unto others, etc. And while the first scene introduces the concept of what constitutes a work of art (is it its display, its intention, or something else?) it’s not until the show-stopping setpiece at the gala dinner where we visualize the incredibly blurred line between performance and reality; it’s a sequence that feels perfectly at one with the film’s tone, yet separated from the narrative in a beautifully theatrical manner.
Östlund is so gifted and confident in his direction that every scene (in what appears to be a disjointed narrative) ties in with the problematic art piece at its center. There’s the white square surrounding the cheerleading performance, the chimpanzee presaging the performance artist, and the use of off-screen space in the scene where Michael is babysitting the car and gets preyed upon. So many memorable shots: the overhead in the garbage dump, the shopping mall escalators, the extras on their phones, and even Dominic West in his pajamas. Viewers may be turned off by a filmmaker forcing you to endure his sociological study, but when it’s this invigorating, sign me up for next semester. I’ve got no problem being teacher’s pet.