“The Square” lands its bullseyes, over and over, with a faultless precision that grows duller with each strike. Its targets are twofold: moral hypocrisy, especially among the moneyed and well-meaning, and the contemporary-art-museum world. Set in a cosmopolitan and socially stratified Stockholm, writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s latest takes aim at fellow members of the artistic and academic intelligentsia in a work that feels tailor-made for them and possibly them alone.
Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” became a critical hit by heaping (rightful) humiliation on a man (played by Johannes Kuhnke) enjoying a family ski vacation who flees alone when an avalanche falls, leaving his wife and two young children to fend for themselves. With the Palme d’Or-winning “The Square,” the Swedish filmmaker relentlessly shames his male protagonist once more. The difference is, Christian (Claes Bang) is too dense to realize how mortified he should feel.
The chief curator of a prominent art museum, Christian is the very picture of aspirational Scandinavia: tall and lanky, with floppy hair and self-consciously artsy glasses, a jaunty scarf substituting for an absent tie over a slim-cut suit. His job duties, too, seem lifted from a lifestyle magazine: His next project is developing a marketing strategy for an exhibition that showcases an artwork called The Square. A small stone plaza illuminated by LED piping at the edges, The Square represents “a sanctuary of trust and caring” — a line repeated four times because Ostlund can’t help underlining his point, then circling it, then drawing a bunch of arrows at it.
Christian’s lofty speeches about the necessity of reminding museum-goers of community and interdependence are layered over shots of homeless people, many of them foreigners, crowding streets, subway stations, fast-food restaurants, and mall entryways. Ostlund treats every last one of them like people, not objects of pity. Christian tries to do so as well, even if they’re not as grateful or humble as he’d prefer. But he’s a man unaccustomed to being challenged. The most infuriating aspect of his bullying isn’t how instinctive it is, but that he doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.
After a pick-pocketer absconds with his wallet, phone and cufflinks, Christian concocts an improbable scheme to get his belongings back: Leave a note in every apartment of a tall building that his Track My Phone app has located his cell to, threatening payback if his stuff isn’t returned in 24 hours. Afraid of the neighborhood that his lost phone has brought him to, Christian initially attempts to convince one of his employees to distribute the menacing fliers while he waits in the comfort of his Tesla.
Christian gets his valuables back, but gains a stalker, too. A little boy (Elijandro Edouard) who lives in that building demands an apology for the accusation that he’s a thief. Christian could just say sorry. But kindness is inconvenient. And so the longer he waits, and the angrier the boy gets, the more un-Christian the curator’s actions become in response.
“The Square” sprawls and lolls; its lengthy scenes frequently drag and its hand-holding moralism keeps introducing new examples with which to reiterate the film’s thesis. From the moment that Elisabeth Moss’s Anne enters the screen to interview Christian, it’s obvious he’ll end up sleeping with the reporter. Their coital exertions are admirably realistic in their sweatiness and a post-sex tug-of-war over his condom supplies the film’s funniest gag, but Anne’s mostly in the picture to demonstrate Christian’s caddishness.
A pajama-clad artist’s (Dominic West) Q&A goes sideways when an audience member’s Tourette’s syndrome has him yelling obscenities at the sculptor and the moderator in a facedown inspired by Ostlund’s own experience. Fellowship is a nice idea, but its borders often exclude Othered groups like the disabled.
The centerpiece of “The Square” is a performance that goes terrifyingly awry. The museum throws a ball for its wealthy patrons, who are treated to performance art by an artist named Oleg (Terry Notary, “Kong: Skull Island”). In the guise of a half-naked, aggressive primate, Oleg searches for a victim — a hunt that’s supposed to illustrate how self-servingly we animals protect ourselves while leaving others to harm. The ball attendees just want a sanitized experience, a titter before patting themselves on the back for being benefactors of the arts. Suffused with dread and anxiety, the ball “confirms” the ugly narcissism and conformism, which includes the misogyny and xenophobia, of humanity — even when they’re helping one another out.
The Oleg scene adds to the film’s considerable disjointedness — a fragmentation exacerbated by parodic sketches of museum mishaps woven into Christian’s story. Ostlund’s museum comedy is pointed but mostly gentle, like a needle that’s exact but disinclined to puncture the skin. Jokes about an exhibition called “Mirrors and Piles of Gravel” and questions about “the topos of exhibition/non-exhibition” could make for an IFC series called “Stockholmia.”
But Ostlund doesn’t hold back when it comes to lancing cultural institutions’ pomposity, or their thirst for media-courting controversy. While Christian veers closer to the epiphany that he is a moral weasel, his younger, “edgier” underlings think up an ad for the new exhibition that they hope will go viral. The resultant video is another comic highlight in this dry comedy that’s otherwise more theoretically funny than actually gut-busting. It’s also a rare moment of genuine irreverence in a scolding, self-serious film that’s ambitious, yes, but self-indulgently bloated.
“The Square” devotes 142 minutes to making Christian and the larger art world confront their dangerous myopia. “Check your privilege” takes only 20 characters to say the same thing.