Ruben Ostlund’s “Force Majeure” was a masterful look at family bonds tested by a single unexpected moment; his new movie, “The Square,” has too many masterful moments in search of a good movie. It’s further evidence that the Swedish director has a wonderful eye for deadpan comedy that can pitch into despair at any moment, but Ostlund’s story veers off in so many directions that it’s almost like he can’t decide if any of them are worth the trip.
At once a high-minded art world satire and a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-style cringe comedy, it’s a tale of identity crisis that faces one of its own.
Technically, “The Square” was inspired by a 2014 installation project by Ostlund designed to test participants’ moral code, which is similar to the piece hosted at the gallery run by slick curator Christian (Claes Bang) that invites visitors to choose different paths based on whether or not they trust people. Early on, Christian meets with a group of eager marketing experts who can’t figure out how to sell the show to a broader audience.
“The message should be simplicity,” he says, to their chagrin, but it’s also a cry for help.
There’s nothing simple about Christian’s messy life. When he’s not caring for his young daughters or dealing with a preponderance of practical matters in his gallery, he’s wandering down a rabbit hole of misadventures that keeps getting deeper. After his phone is stolen, he uses a tracking device to pin it down to an apartment building where any of the tenants may be the thief. His abrupt decision to leave a note in every single mailbox leads to one child unfairly accused of the crime to track Christian down in anger, and suddenly he’s got one more problem in an increasingly unwieldy life.
In the meantime, he romances an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss, funny but underutilized in the movie’s sole English-speaking part) who may or may not be trying trick him into getting her pregnant. Also, she owns a chimp for no apparent reason. It’s just that kind of movie, a Pollock canvas of weird ideas tossed at the audience in search of a singular narrative, some of which stick better than others.
But some of them stick quite well. “The Square” holds a lot of promise early on, when Christian gets a burst of confidence and speeds down the freeway with his friend on a quest to retrieve his missing phone, as the pair blast electronic beats by Justice and pump themselves up. That scene follows on the heels of another one when Christian inadvertently stops a fight on the street and finds himself unexpectedly charged up. Each time, however, he finds himself somewhat less confident only moments later as the comedy of errors keeps piling up.
Just as “Force Majeure” used a barren mountaintop to evoke its family’s confused mindset, the setting is a critical part of this movie’s selling point. Shot with crisp, bright lighting that emphasizes the gallery’s open spaces, it often seems as though Christian’s lost in a labyrinth he made for himself.
Ostlund is on sturdiest ground when mapping out a keen satire of the art world. The movie lands a single, brilliant set piece in an awkward bit of dinner theater performance art that goes horribly wrong, and comes close to another when an elegant public conversation about art gets interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s Syndrome.
There’s another hilarious aside involving the accidental destruction of an art piece made from mounds of clay. Bang gives Christian a slapstick quality as he bounds about his gallery in desperate attempts to fix various problems — when not distracted by the ongoing mystery of his phone thief, or the potentially disastrous marketing for the gallery done without his permission, or the abrupt reappearances of Moss’ character as she makes strange advances toward him that he can’t quite figure out. And neither can we: Like a lot of “The Square,” she’s a promising idea who could use more fleshing out.
There’s a wonderful character study lurking within the confines of these vignettes, but Ostlund drifts between them in an unwieldy running time that never justifies its heft. The director excels at generating a nervous energy around his character’s mounting desperation, and the movie’s intermittently engaging for that reason alone: You can never quite tell if he’s about to crack. Unfortunately, this distended pity party suffers from the same vanity plaguing Christian’s life, and they’re both too messy for their own good.
“The Square” premiered at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.