“The Square” – Sweden (Best Foreign Film Oscar Nominee)

“The Square” (Sweden)
Directed by Ruben Östlund

The-Square-10.jpgSo Ruben Östlund‘s last film, “Force Majeur” (an Oscar nominee in 2015) was long on film presence and purpose, but short on story and magnetism. “The Square”, alas, goes WAY overboard in trying to reverse that criticism. There are at least five mini-plots – shorts, even – in this overlong, incredibly convoluted and borderline pretentious film. So what’s the good news? It’s terrifically shot, the acting is spot on and, occasionally it is laugh out loud funny (most of those occasions are in the American trailer for the film, natch).

So what is it? In a nutshell, this is a “simple” portrait of an artistic director for a world-renowned contemporary art museum in Stockholm. But that’s like saying “Dunkirk” is a “simple” profile of a soldier. There are at least three too many things going on in the film that seemingly have nothing to do with its stated act structure. I counted five separate times when I sighed out loud and almost wished that they’d get to the point….whatever that point was. Is it a simple caper film? Is it a treatise on the nature of attraction and power? Is it an exploration of how we can all become beasts or monsters? Is it about the humor to be found in a world that takes itself so seriously? And if it is supposed to be all of these…here’s an idea…pick three!

And, frustratingly, it is at its best when it explores the nature of the modern art culture and the marketing that surrounds it. That’s where the humor is and that’s the only intersection where we have any concern for our lead, Christian, played to perfection by Claes Bang. Accomplishing the impossible task of bringing order to this insane jumble is no small feat, but Bang more than manages it. I hope this leads to much bigger things for him in films we actually have access to (although you can see him in the brilliant Swedish television production of “The Bridge”). Every other character in the film is of minor import as a person. Instead they exist solely as juggling balls for Christian to keep up in the air. Special mention to Elijandro Edouard, who as a young put-upon lad, gives the movie the heart it so desperately needs. As for Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West, I have NO idea what either of them are doing in this flick. Moss, especially, tries her best to make sense of her nonsensical role. I think Ostlund was attempting to showcase the vast gap between how a man and a woman look at intimacy. But, alas, even here, she comes off as clueless in a way her character shouldn’t.

And then there are the bizarro scenes: Terry Notary’s ape bit goes on for about an hour too long. The entire sex scene is strange…seemingly for strangeness’ sake.  The scenes involving danger are devoid of stakes. I admit, much of it might be Swedish-culture specific, but it mostly didn’t land for me. At least the marketing humor is funny, and appropriately odd..

And I almost forgot! Ninety percent of the score is made up of Bobby McFerrin improvisational stuff. Interesting…for about twenty seconds. But before long it simply adds to the annoyance.

Okay…look…this movie is not nearly as bad as I have made it out to be. Much of it is great. Truly great. But to find its quality, there’s a whole lot of wading through the muck, and nothing is as frustrating for an audience member than knowing there is greatness in a piece of cinema…only to have it obfuscated by a director who simply cannot get out of his own way.

All that said, there’s a chance it will win the Oscar, I suppose.. It’s more in the “Dogtooth” category of nominees – strange films that are loved by the nominating committee chosen few, but not by the Academy at large. They prefer films with higher stakes and a more direct presentation…like “Secret In their Eyes”, “Departures”, “Ida” or “Son of Saul”.

Then again, “The Great Beauty” won and, as pretty as it was, no one knows what the hell that was about…

Written on 2/14/2018

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