Harrowing yet exhilarating, Ruben Östlund's art-world satire "The Square" took the Palme D'Or at Cannes. Östlund's last film, "Force Majeure," made the top half of my top-ten list in 2014 (and its exclusion from the Oscar shortlist was another blot on the Academy). Östlund is better than any other director working at putting you smack in an unpleasant situation and forcing you to think about and decide what you would do. It's a cinema of dilemma, but more so a cinema of discomfort. Things - aural things even more than visual - are always happening around the edges of his frame that keep his characters and us from ever being able to relax. I was surprised but not shocked that both the friend I attended "The Square" with and two friends to whom I had recommended it walked out. I, on the other hand, was nodding my head up and down with excitement. In a largely moribund current cinema, "The Square" feels jarringly alive.
Christian (stunning newcomer Claes Bang) is a divorced father of two young girls and the curator of a cutting-edge Stockholm modern art museum. As the movie opens, he is busily preparing for the arrival of a major (but highly minimalist) installation called The Square, approximately half of a room in size, in which visitors are exhorted to treat each other with respect (passive) and care (potentially active). Of course, this being an Östlund film, Christian's own behavior may not live up to the same ideals, particularly when his mobile phone is stolen while he buys a sandwich for one of the city's seemingly vast stream of (rarely appropriately grateful) beggars.
He and a colleague decide to print out ransom-note-type flyers and place them in the mail slots of every apartment in the 13-story building to which his phone tracker shows him it was taken. Needless to say, none of this harebrained escapade goes as planned. Still, the lady at the convenience store calls him the next day to tell him his wallet was returned, and fully intact. Which makes it all the stranger when the counter girl calls him the following day to tell him a letter has been left for him, promising to "make chaos" unless Christian apologizes to the writer and his family. He is not whom you would expect.
And we haven't even gotten to the journalist (Elisabeth Moss) who interviews, sleeps with and later goes Glenn-Close-in-"Fatal Attraction" on Christian. Or the barely post-adolescent advertising team who come up with a commercial in which a blonde, blue-eyed girl of six is blown to bits inside The Square, triggering mass condemnation and jeopardizing Christian's career. Or the brilliant set piece - and Östlund is a true master of the set piece - in which a male artist who has been caged and treated as an animal is loosed upon the wealthy donors and socialites at the grand opening dinner for The Square, twenty minutes of exquisite squirm-in-your-seat tension. "This shouldn't be happening, but it is." That's Ruben Östlund in one sentence. Life isn't happening the way I planned; what do I do now?
And I couldn't complete this review without mentioning one line in particular. Now, every so often, I'll hear a movie line and instantly be inconsolable with laughter. It happened in an otherwise unmemorable 2015 romcom called "Sleeping with Other People," when Alison Brie has dressed up for dinner at a nice restaurant with Adam Scott, who returns from using the facilities and promptly breaks the mood by announcing, "Bathroom fucking stinks." Here, a woman is attempting to slow passersby on a bustling plaza and interest them in her charitable cause: "Would you like to save a human life?" As he keeps walking, one man clumsily offers, "Not right now."