The Square pokes fun at the modern art world

Terry Notary in a jungle predator scene at a formal dinner in The Square.
Terry Notary in a jungle predator scene at a formal dinner in The Square.PHOTO: ANTICIPATE PICTURES

REVIEW / DRAMA

THE SQUARE (M18)

151 minutes/Opens today/4 stars

The story: Christian (Danish actor Claes Bang), the director of an art museum in Stockholm, has his phone and wallet stolen. He traces the phone to a building in a lower-income part of town and devises a plan to get his belongings back. Meanwhile, his museum is holding an exhibition called The Square and he hatches plans to get wealthy patrons and the public interested in it.

In the cinema of discomfort, few are as adept as Swedish film-maker Ruben Ostlund. Art museum director Christian (Bang) himself is shouted at and finds himself caught in a lie or squirming in his seat.

Every few minutes, he is forced to explain himself and the result makes for an excruciating watch.

In this funny, discomfiting account of the days leading up to the opening of a major exhibition, Christian offends a woman (Elisabeth Moss), a homeless person and a boy from a low-income housing unit who appears to come from an Arab family. Almost without effort, the man, who considers himself a lefty liberal, has committed the sins of sexism, snobbery and racism.

Writer-director Ostlund loves stories about men whose beliefs about themselves are shaken to the core by a single incident.

  • VIEW IT / THE SQUARE (M18)

  • WHERE: The Arts House, 1 Old Parliament Lane

    WHEN: Till Jan 31, various times

    ADMISSION: $13.50, for schedule and bookings, go to thesquare2018.peatix.com

In his breakout, Force Majeure (2014), a father on a skiiing holiday abandons his family in a moment of crisis. Thereafter, in a series of social encounters, his status as caregiver and male role model is torn apart.

In this film - winner of the Cannes Film Festival's highest award, the Palme d'Or, last year - Christian's self-belief suffers the same death by a thousand cuts, but unlike the dad in the earlier film, he is immune to criticism. Until the final act at least, he suffers no consequences.

But when Christian's conscience is finally pricked, it happens in a mildly hallucinatory manner.

Ostlund likes to show off images for sheer visual pleasure. Among them is a jungle predator scene at a formal dinner, featuring the work of Terry Notary, the actor whose body movements animated all the recent Planet Of The Apes movies (2011-2017).

Yet, this movie is anything but misanthropic. And while it pokes at the pretensions of modern art, it does not dismiss it altogether.

Neither is Christian a monster. Played by Bang with a low-key gravitas - he plays the shell of a man in a nice suit perfectly - Christian's flaw is how blind he is to his privileges, in spite of how often he uses his status as a member of Stockholm's elite to get what he wants.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2018, with the headline 'Poking fun at the modern art world'. Print Edition | Subscribe