‘The Square’ Cannes Review: Swedish Satire Goes Ape, in the Best Way

Ruben Ostlund’s art-world story featuring Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West does a brilliant job of asking the director’s favorite question: “Aren’t we humans a sorry lot?”

The Square
"The Square"

One year ago in Cannes, the festival’s first Friday night brought the first press screening of Maren Ade’s “Toni Erdmann,” a long, scathing, brilliantly funny film with some jaw-dropping set pieces.

This year, Ade is on the jury, and Friday night brought a pretty good substitute: Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square,” which happens to be a long, scathing, brilliantly funny film with a jaw-dropping set piece.

“The Square” doesn’t sustain its level of invention and bite for its full two hours and 22 minutes, which ties it with “A Gentle Creature” as the longest film in this year’s main competition. But it is a bold, generous and marvelously constructed exploration of its director’s favorite question: “Aren’t we humans a sorry lot?”

The film is set in the art world, but Ostlund is after bigger fish than just to mock that world’s foibles. (Don’t worry, he does that too.) Claes Bang plays Christian, the curator of a museum that is courting contemporary art to stay current and courting the YouTube generation to stay solvent.

When Christian’s wallet and phone are stolen in an elaborate scam, it sets in motion a series of events that quickly spiral out of control on a number of levels. Along the way, we meet Elisabeth Moss as a reporter with a roommate who happens to be a chimpanzee, Dominic West as an artist and a slew of folks who regularly embarrass themselves in ways that virtually always ring true to a cringeworthy degree.

Ostlund is a master at showing the ways in which we are all bumbling fools at heart; his cinema is a symphony of awkward interactions and stupid mistakes, building to a crescendo of ineptitude. The director often shoots his characters from a distance, stranding them in environments that can be dramatic but are always off-kilter, and never comforting or homey.

As in his previous film, “Force Majeure,” this is a very funny examination of human weakness, but also a lot more than that. “The Square,” which takes its name from a new artwork in which a shape drawn on the ground is supposed to represent “a sanctuary of trust and caring,” gets more serious and complicated as it progresses, detailing a society in which indifference to each other is the default setting and there is no true place of trust and caring.

Not for nothing is “I’m sorry, I can’t help you” the last line of this film.

Ostlund juggles a lot of ideas, more as the movie goes on, and momentum fades as the two-hour mark approaches. But “The Square” never stops being entertaining – and in the homestretch, it reaches a bizarre peak of sorts in an lengthy, uproarious and ultimate disturbing sequence in which a Swedish artist named Oleg acts like an ape and threatens the guests at a black-tie fundraiser until the genteel evening collapses into chaos.

And since Oleg is played by former Cirque du Soleil performer Terry Notary, who taught actors ape movements for several “Planet of the Apes” movies and was the motion-capture King Kong in the most recent film, the guy really knows how to act like an ape.

Too much monkey business? No way. “The Square” was just right for a Friday night in Cannes.