Review: 'The Square' is a potent Swedish satire

Following a Swedish art museum curator as he deals with the aftermath of having his phone and wallet stolen on the street while trying to open an exhibition devoted to trust, caring and equal rights and obligations, “The Square” is a very dark social satire that is very much of and for our time.

The potent film explores class, the division between the elite and the everyday, the relationship of sex and power, immigration and the corrosive nature of social media while skewering the art world, delivering some uneasy laughs and holding social conventions and conflicts up for a clear critique.

At the center of Ruben Ostlund’s film is Christian, superbly played by Danish actor Claes Bang. Sleekly attired in suits, scarves and designer reading glasses, Christian espouses all the contemporary art world values -- freedom of speech, pushing of boundaries, creating objects films and performances to focus the mind on issues like the need for trust.

The latter comes through “The Square,” a literal square painted on the plaza outside the museum that is intended to be a “sanctuary of trust and caring.” But before Christian can get the show open, he’s caught up in a street scene -- a screaming woman fleeing from a man who hides behind the curator and another passerby.

When the incident is over, Christian is without his phone and wallet. Using the locator function to follow the phone, he and a museum underling track it to an public housing project. So they print out a threatening letter, drive to the project in Christian’s new Tesla and put the letters in all the mail slots, demanding a return of the stolen items.

Giving nothing away, this isn’t a Hollywood film and the theft doesn’t lead to violence, tension and retribution. Rather, it’s a device that brings Christian into direct contact with people he’d generally not encounter.

Meanwhile, back at the museum, he’s dealing with a pair of 20-something advertising/marketing hotshots who are proposing an explosive social media campaign to heighten interest in “The Square,” working with the staff, cozying up to the elderly donors, who are hilarious dancing in the palace that’s next to the museum, and doing interviews.

The latter includes one with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American TV reporter who seems mostly baffled by Christian’s art-world mumbo jumbo, but still wants to sleep with him. That’s where the sex and power come in.

Throw in a couple of artists, one of whom does ape-like performances, and you’ve got the mix that Ostlund deftly manipulates to deliver his powerful satire.

In the part, the film works because Ostlund is intimately familiar with the mileau in which it takes place -- it grew out of a project that he and another artist did at a Swedish museum titled “The Square.”

But it also connects because Ostlund pulls no punches and the actors, in particular Bang, deliver.

His Christian is a classic -- a divorced father of two girls who sees himself as a man of compassion for all, pursuing the loftiest of goals when, in reality, he’s an elitist who largely stays away from the little people and their grubby little lives. That makes him appealing and appalling in similar measure.

Had I seen “The Square” a couple weeks ago, it would have made my best-of-2017 list of foreign language films. Now it’s the first excellent film to play Lincoln in the new year -- a satire so well drawn and thought-provoking that it lingers in the mind and in discussion for days.

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