Ruben Östlund's latest suggests the Swedish writer-director's gifts include an ability to see the future. It premiered at the Cannes festival this May and includes the following line, spoken by a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) to the film's central character, a Stockholm art museum curator (Claes Bang):
"You're interested in using your position," Moss asserts, "which is a position of power, to attract women and to make conquests." That sounds eerily like something a traumatized actress might assert this very minute in connection with the Harvey Weinstein scandal.
With just a handful of films, including 2014's award-winning Force Majeure, Östlund has made an international name for himself as a master of suspenseful social observation. A number of observations he makes in The Square prove not merely insightful but downright freaky.
Equally freaky is something the 43-year-old said in an interview after winning the Palme d'Or, Cannes' highest honor: "The film could take place in the cinema world also."
Besides the occasional feat of prophecy, the movie offers a comically excoriating portrait of a figure who appears the epitome of political correctness but is forced by events to confront his spiritual hypocrisy. Christian is the sort of minor celebrity who perhaps could only exist in Scandinavia — a rock-star art conservator. The dashing Danish actor plays him as the picture of self-assurance. Until he's mugged on his way to work.
It starts when Christian offers help to a stranger who's come to a woman's aid. Offering and withholding help are defining human acts for Östlund, whose work frequently addresses what he calls the "bystander effect."
Christian feels briefly fabulous about himself, then realizes the whole thing was a con staged to steal his wallet and phone. He's inclined to let it go, until a coworker convinces him to track his cell. When the signal leads to a low-income housing project, Christian finds more than he bargained for. His privileged existence begins to unravel as he lets things slide at work and gets sucked deeper into the unsavory affair.
The picture is packed with provocative ideas and remarkable images, while Östlund's script is just off-the-charts smart. What other filmmaker could get away with giving Moss' character a chimpanzee for a flatmate and never commenting on it? Never mind bookending that with a scene certain to prove among the year's most discussed.
At a glitzy dinner, museum donors are terrorized by a performance artist named Oleg who wears metal arm extensions, grunts menacingly and smashes wine glasses before dragging a female guest to the floor and Harvey Weinsteining her. It sounds preposterous, but it's actually a cheeky reference to real-life Russian artist Oleg Kulik, infamous for assuming the role of a potentially dangerous dog.
Oh, and there's the Square. The museum's new installation, it's an empty frame of light embedded in the courtyard. A sign describes it as "a sanctuary of trust and caring." The idea is, if anyone inside it asks for help, help must be given. Fanciful, right?
Except it's real. There are three Squares: one in Sweden, two in Norway. People in need use them. In the film, its creator goes unnamed. The freaky thing is, it's Östlund — which is either a case of life imitating art or the reverse. Either way, the whole deal is unbelievably brilliant. I recommend being a bystander.
The Square screens at the Vermont International Film Festival on Sunday, October 22, 7:15 p.m., at Main Street Landing Film House and on Friday, October 27, 2 p.m., at Main Street Landing Black Box in Burlington.