Swedish writer/director Ruben Østlund’s illuminating, sly, and beautifully made The Square, winner of this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or, takes artful (key word) aim at the connections and disconnects between the art world and the “world world.” It also jabs at the pretensions and power plays of the fine-art orbit, the banality of social inequity, and other subjects bubbling under an entirely provocative film. Bach’s “Ave Maria,” in the haunting voice/cello version by Bobby McFerrin and Yo-Yo Ma, serves as a sobering and hymn-like theme song.
The Square in question is a reality-tempting and interactive “social practice” project at the Stockholm museum helmed by director Christian (Claes Bang: cool, handsome, confused about his grip on life, and lusty for power), and a source of follies and dubious marketing ploys. But thanks to a chance encounter with a criminal act and its plot-thickening aftermath, Christian is drawn deeply into schemes and realms of reality his smart-suited poise can’t easily remedy or process.
Unexpected humor intervenes in the narrative along the way — sometimes toothily satirical, sometimes subtle — including a scene where an artist’s self-serious Q&A is interrupted by the blurted obscenities of a Tourette’s-afflicted audience member (or is he a Dadaist plant?), the recurring joke of having no cash (Sweden is trying to do away with the stuff), and a certain condom tug-of-war (with Elisabeth Moss, American journalist). The latter scene alludes slyly to the underscoring issues of artifice, dubious sympathies, lost values, and the quest for humanity in the dizzy mix of daily life and art. More serious inward questioning, and primal outbursts, are in store. A must-see in our suddenly busy art-house scene.