Netflix UK film review: The Square
Matthew Turner | On 16, Mar 2018Reading time: 3 mins
Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary, Linda Anborg
Watch The Square online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Rakuten TV / Google Play
Director Ruben Östlund is adept at mixing jet-black comedy with challenging social satire – his previous film, Force Majeure, centred on the excruciating emotional fall-out after a husband is caught on camera fleeing from an avalanche, rather than attempting to protect his wife and children. Östlund’s latest film, the Palme d’or-winning, Oscar-nominated satire The Square, isn’t as tightly focused as Force Majeure, but it still manages to hit multiple targets, generating an atmosphere of excruciating awkwardness into the bargain.
The film centres on Christian (The Bridge’s Claes Bang), the handsome, sophisticated and liberal-minded curator of Stockholm’s X-Royal museum. Christian’s latest interactive exhibit is The Square, a literal square of ground outside the museum that’s supposed to represent the social contract, with anyone who enters it expected to behave responsibly. However, Christian finds himself increasingly distracted after his wallet and phone are stolen in a cleverly staged public pickpocketing scam. Furious, he tracks his iPhone to a run-down apartment block and pushes an angry note through every door in the building, but his scheme backfires horribly, setting off a disturbing chain of events.
Unfortunately, Christian’s run of bad luck doesn’t quite stop there. In addition to experiencing a tense and weird one-night stand with American TV journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), he takes his eye off the ball at work and allows his pushy PR team to release a spectacularly misguided promotional video for The Square that promptly goes viral. And that’s nothing compared to the black-tie museum dinner he organises, featuring a piece of “ape man” performance art (by “animal actor” Terry Notary) that veers wildly out of control.
Östlund’s many targets include political correctness, hypocrisy, casual racism, artistic ego, manufactured controversy, the creative impulse, the pretentiousness of the art world, the relationship between art and money, freedom of speech and several others besides. The attacks vary wildly in their approach (some on the nose, others more subtle) and impact, but the results are always provocative and unsettling, leaving you with plenty to think about. This is most apparent in the ape man sequence, the film’s bravura central set piece, which starts out wryly funny and becomes a veritable masterclass in tension, awkwardness and excruciating embarrassment. Cleverly, Östlund keeps the sequence going much longer than you expect, so the film’s audience are just as trapped as the characters on screen, wondering if this is meant to be happening or whether something has gone horribly wrong.
Bang is excellent as confident-yet-oblivious Christian (the name is almost certainly deliberate), while Moss is deliciously weird and intense as Anne and there’s a low-key but effective turn from Dominic West as a visiting artist whose onstage Q&A keeps getting interrupted by someone with Tourette’s. However, the acting honours are roundly stolen by Notary, who’s utterly mesmerising as Oleg the ape man, encapsulating the film with a performance that’s simultaneously funny, weird, angry, provocative, dangerous, suspenseful and mysterious.
The Square is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.