The word “suspense” connects to thrillers, action and deadly violence. But what if you were a lofty filmmaker out to diagnose the creeping misanthropy of our society, and you were a wizard at applying the dread-ridden playful tools of suspense to that? You’d be Ruben Östlund, the Swedish director of the acclaimed domestic psychological passion play “Force Majeure” (2014), and now “The Square,” which premiered tonight at Cannes. Östlund creates suspense the old-fashioned way, setting up scenes that make the audience go: What in God’s name is going to happen next? But he also creates suspense in a new-fangled way, turning the space between people into an alarming existential battleground. He’s like Hitchcock infused with the spirit of mid-period Bergman.
“The Square” is set in Stockholm, and it’s about the chief curator of a prestigious art museum. Christian (Claes Bang), tall and impeccable, with red-framed glasses and swept-back hair, is handsome enough to evoke the young Pierce Brosnan. He glides through the world with expensive confidence, yet from the opening scene things start to go wrong for him. There are two reasons for that. He is, as it turns out, a bit of a boob, and the form his boobism takes is that he’s in total denial of what a privileged, passive hypocrite he is.
“Force Majeure” was like an X-ray into everything gone wrong in the relationship between men and women, with special emphasis on the insidious wimpiness of the 21st-century post-feminist male. The entire movie spun out of a random yet telling incident: a fluky avalanche during a family ski trip, which caused the husband to reflexively run for cover rather than protect his wife and children.
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“The Square,” too, builds on a cataclysm that erupts out of nowhere. Christian is strolling to work in the middle of morning rush hour when a woman starts to shout, “He’s going to kill me!” Sure enough, a brute of a boyfriend comes at her, but a pedestrian blocks his way, and Christian lends a hand. It’s only when the two saviors are done congratulating each other that Christian realizes that his wallet, cell phone and heirloom cuff links have all been stolen. The whole thing was a setup, and Christian will be damned if he’s going to let some petty crooks get away with that.
At the X-Royal Museum, housed in a former palace, he and his team are busy putting together a new exhibit called The Square, which is all about lionizing the space — a literal square — that everyone in society shares, the place where we must all look out for each other. It’s a symbol of the basic social contract, but Östlund is out to demonstrate that the world is fast losing that impulse.
A museum like Christian’s is part of the problem. Östlund offers a suavely merciless take-down of the decadence of the contemporary art world, whether it’s Christian, in an interview with Anne (Elisabeth Moss), an American TV journalist, stumbling to defend the postmodern gobbledygook in one of his catalogs, or the simple sight of an exhibit that consists of cone-shaped piles of rubble, with a sign in white neon that says “You have nothing.” The movie’s dark joke is that the museum, by necessity, is really about money (the donations necessary to mount the art; the money the art will fetch on the open market), so whatever the “message” pretends to be, it’s actually: Here’s a posh contrivance that has nothing to do with your life.
The film’s lacerating vision extends far beyond the art world. Christian wants his phone and wallet back, and after tracking the phone, by app, to a low-income housing project, he prints up a flyer and shoves it into the mail slot of every apartment in the project — an act of desperate arrogance. (The plan actually works: He gets his stuff back. But the plan also creates major blowback.) At the opening-night party for the exhibit, Christian goes home with Anne, and after a round of aerobic sex, he takes his condom off, and Anne volunteers, a little too pointedly, to throw it away for him.
This is a perfect snapshot of how Östlund spins social observation into quivering tension. The squabbling over who’s going to toss away a used condom sounds funny, but at its root is a new kind of sexual cold war, built around the question: Is it possible that she would try to use the condom to get pregnant? The idea works as movie drama and as spiritual metaphor, with romance reduced to a state of mutual self-interest and mistrust.
The Danish actor Claes Bang, who might be the new Mads Mikkelsen (though he speaks much better English), plays all of this with dashing and exquisitely clueless sympathetic chutzpah. And Östlund works with a deceptive light hand. He’s not a satirist so much as he is a prankish social realist, and he has a knack for infusing scenes with danger. A pair of social-media marketing gurus are in charge of selling the art exhibit, and the video they come up with becomes a sensation on YouTube, but it’s a scandal: They blow up a poor homeless girl as a way to sell the “compassion” of The Square. And when Östlund stages a black-tie museum dinner featuring a piece of “ape man” performance art enacted by a scary provocateur (Terry Notary) who goes one grunting, swell-baiting step too far, it’s mesmerizing. This, at last, is a work of art, because its statement is: Civility is gone. We’re all just facing off in the jungle.
Östlund, at his best, is a heady and enthralling filmmaker, but unfortunately, he has so much on his mind that he is also, at his weakest, a shapeless and didactic one. “The Square” is more outrageous but less effective than “Force Majeure.” It’s two hours and 22 minutes long, and though it has a strong first half, the more it goes on the less it hangs together. Östlund keeps a number of things too vague, like the fate of Moss’s tightly wound character. He needs to let his instinct for suspense, which ignites individual scenes, guide the shape of an entire movie. But when he does, he’ll deliver a knockout. Because he possesses the thing in filmmaking that counts most: a voice.