Movie Review: “The Square”

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Another year, another over-long, obscure (and often as not, European) Palme D’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year’s Palme picture is “The Square,” a two and a half hour darkly comic commentary on community, moral responsibility, class and the pretentiousness of modern art.

The latest from writer/director Ruben Ostlund, who created the masterly and more coherent “Force Majeure,” it plays like a performance art piece that outstays its welcome.

That’s what life must feel like for the film’s unheroic lead. Christian Nielsen (Claes Bang) is a hip, posh head of Stockholm’s X-Royal Museum, a modern art repository sitting on the cutting edge of world art culture.

Where else could you go for to see a blockbuster exhibition — “Mirrors & Piles of Gravel?”

They’re pushing hard to answer that eternal question of modern art — “If you place an object in a museum, does that make it art?”

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Christian isn’t rattled when he has to explain himself and that credo to a comically underprepared TV reporter (Elizabeth Moss of “The Handmaid’s Tale”).  She asks him just that one question.

He’s got to wonder what might be going on when he’s the victim of an elaborate pickpocket scam that features domestic melodrama, the threat of violence and a fellow “bystander” who enlists his help to intervene.

He’s already brushed past the panhandlers who want to know how little he’d pay “to save a human life.”

So it’s confirmed. No human kindness goes unpunished. Or maybe keeping the real world at arm’s length is why he’s been punished.

Something to chew on as the museum prepares to open an impossible-to-market conceptual piece, “The Square,” a four meter by four meter floor installation (bordered by a light strip) where inside it “is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

In a Sweden with insufferably rude immigrant panhandlers, where an artist’s Q & A is hysterically/horrifically interrupted by an alleged Tourette’s Syndrome sufferer that no one dares asks to leave, where avenging yourself on the petty criminals who picked your pocket is unheard of, where a glamorous gala’s performance art piece is a muscular brute (Terry Notary) aping a gorilla to such a degree he puts helpless art lovers in mortal peril, is there a line between tolerance and the intolerable?

Moss and Dominic West, as the artist whose Q & A is ruined by what could very well be a faker (Is it all just “performance art?”) get high billing, even though neither is in the movie more than two or three scenes.

Bang, largely unknown outside of Sweden, navigates a perilous world with a near-unflappable calm. But he can be flapped. His IT guy (Christopher Laesso) tracks his stolen phone, prompting a late night mail run — threatening notes left at every apartment in the building where the thieves must reside. Christian finds himself forced to do this dirty work by himself.

He’s faced with the consequences — a wrestling match over a used condom — of bedding a willing fan with a nasty edge and questionable motives.

And then there’s that exhibit that nobody could market, but willing Young Turks at their ad firm take a shot, with out-of-their-depth consequences.

Ostlund has Christian flip back and forth between English and Swedish at the oddest times. How’s he know if the street person he asks to watch his bags so he can hunt down his unruly, slipped out of sight teen/tween daughters speaks English?

The director makes pointed comments about “installation” art of the “Give me a break” variety. If a custodian “damages” piles of gravel, who will know?

It all adds up to rather less than the “meaning” loaded onto “The Square,” and its various subplots and digressions — Motorcycle hoodlums, anyone? — is as indulgent as any of the hooey he’s ridiculing in the museum.

Still, there’s a tone, an unsettling and rising sense of desperation in Christian that takes us along for the ride. I mean, who among us would dare cross Elizabeth Moss in a dander, or would be the first to ball up a fist when performance art gets out of hand?

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MPAA Rating: R for language, some strong sexual content, and brief violence

Cast: Claes Bang, Elizabeth Miss, Dominic West. Terry Notary

Credits: Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 2:25

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