On the outside, Christian is the type of man many of us aspire to be. He is lean, handsome and impeccably dressed. He has an intellectually challenging career (museum curator) and supports all the right causes. Though divorced, he is a doting father of two who engages in an active sex life with the many interesting and beautiful women he meets.
But, as Danish actor Claes Bang shows in his brilliant portrayal of the fictional character at the center of Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund’s social comedy The Square, there are many chinks in Christian’s armor. Bang subtly exposes a narcissist and, as required of a museum curator, bullshit artist who hides behind a bright, progressive façade to indulge the homeless when it suits him and nail young chicks whose names he seldom remembers.
The dramedy’s title refers to his latest installation at a prestigious Swedish contemporary-art museum, which, as with its upper-crust supporters, comes in for just as much skewering as Christian does in the most recent Cannes Palme d’Or winner and Sweden’s official entry for Best Foreign Picture at the next Academy Awards.
Östlund tips the audience off to what’s to come with an early scene in front of X-Royal museum, which had formerly been the Royal Palace, where a regal statue of a past king on horseback is unceremoniously yanked down so a lighted square in the pavement can take its place. What is undeniably art to the masses is shoved aside for something only collectors, modern artists, art students, gallery operators and museum patrons who bother to read title cards are convinced is art.
Also early in the film, Christian comes to the aid of a crime victim in the very kind of place “The Square” installation is supposed to depict, based on his description of it to a rapt audience of museum patrons, who are told we are all responsible for everyone within a public square. And yet, Christian seems oblivious that the place where something so dramatic happened to him directly speaks to what his installation is supposed to be all about, just as his public self is oblivious to his real self.
The incident in question, which evolves/devolves to Christian also being a crime victim, serves as fodder to further peel the layers of hypocrisy from the onion that is this poor sap, who can really stand in for any of us. But you’ll be forgiven for assuming this is going to be the central driver for the story. Östlund . . . forgive me . . . layers in other threads with big actors in small parts to further explore the speciousness of Christian, the art world and the world at large.
Presented mostly in Swedish with English subtitles, there are English-speaking scenes with Hollywood It Girl Elisabeth Moss, as an art journalist who challenges the great sexual conquistador, and The Affair‘s Dominic West, as a famous artist whose patience is tested by a mouthy art-talk audience member. Terry Notary, a motion-capture actor known for Kong: Skull Island, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and War for the Planet of the Apes, depicts a performance artist who—well, let’s just say he really commits to a part. Oh, a real monkey who really commits to being a real monkey shows up, too, in a most unusual place, as you should by now expect from Östlund.
The filmmaker/provocateur, who also explored the real self that exists inside a handsome career man in the 2014 Cannes Jury Prize winner Force Majeure, expertly allows his story—and the underlining social commentary—to unfold naturally, so the crime caper and sexcapades can illuminate such social constructs as entitlement, jumping to false conclusions, and who is really in charge in bed and at the office.
The bit involving the performance artist builds from snippets of video of his simian self on a museum wall to the click-baiting campaign for “The Square” installation cooked up by an outside PR agency to an unforgettable patron dinner that, as outrageous as it becomes, seems perfectly plausible to anyone who has attended lavish functions benefitting local museums, orchestras and performing-arts venues.
For those who have never been to such affairs, relish the education The Square is going to give you. For the rest of us who have clinked glasses with the bluehairs, prepare to be tickled while questioning your own notions of modern art, political correctness and what it means to be an evolved simian.
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It’s completely coincidence that the day The Square opens in Long Beach—and the day after its first week in an Orange County theater ends—Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World rolls as this month’s Cinema Orange presentation.
The intersection of art and commerce, which is a subject of satire in Östlund’s feature, is an issue that gets serious scrutiny in Barry Avrich’s documentary. This has, of course, been a phenomenon that has stretched back for generations, but Blurred Lines argues that the delicate balance between art and commerce is so out of whack that both tracks have merged into one.
If that leaves you fearing you are in for an academic exercise, worry not: Avrich employs a brisk pace, clips from such films as Herbert Ross’ Play it Again, Sam and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and especially candid interviews with the likes of Damien Hirst, Julian Schnabel, Taryn Simon and Marina Abramovic to show how we arrived at this most disturbing time for visual art.
Lost on no one should be the irony of seeing the film at the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA). Cinema Orange is a monthly (and vital) program OCMA puts on with the Newport Beach Film Festival. It is presented when museum admission is free, but know going in that seating is first restricted to OCMA members. Any remaining seats are then offered on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Square was written and directed by Ruben Östlund; and stars Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West and Terry Notary. Opens Fri. at Edwards University, Irvine, and Fri., Nov. 10, at UA Long Beach 6 at Market Place, Long Beach.
Blurred Lines: Inside the Art World screens at the Orange County Museum of Art, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122. Fri., Nov. 10, 7 p.m. Free (with conditions explained above).