The Square review: a comically-barbed satirical lens on the art world

Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure took aim at a specific type of wounded masculinity, in ways that veered between comedy and tragedy. In his new film The Square, a similar satirical lens is applied to the art world. It might seem like low-hanging fruit, and Östlund definitely takes a few pot shots at pretension, but he lets his comically-barbed scenarios meander into other unexpected territories.

Like Force Majeure, the film is peppered with moments of absurd machismo. Christian, a wealthy gallery curator, uses the music of Justice to psych himself up before an altercation. Later he clumsily flirts with various female staff members at a work party.

A large cast of characters orbit Christian, and they’re all great (particularly a hilariously insufferable duo of PR bros), but the film does feel overstuffed. The more things Östlund throws in, the less apparent it becomes as to what exactly is being satirised.

The director seems fascinated with moments that puncture our everyday social contracts, like a man with Tourettes syndrome yelling obscenities at an art critic, or a belligerent chef berating his guests. Calling it cringe comedy is close but not adequate.

It all culminates in a bit of performance art with a man behaving like an ape that is truly agonising, tipping over into outright horror to make a point about herd mentality.

The Square isn’t subtle. It keeps cutting to Stockholm’s homeless community, shown as a contrast to the wealth on display in the art scenes. But by the end there are more interesting ideas about class to chew over.

In the film, ‘The Square’ is a pseudo-philosophical artwork on display at Christian’s gallery. But it also exists in real life – based on Östlund’s idea, there are four of them on display around Sweden. So, who is he taking the piss out of?

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