Early in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, a grand equestrian statue is removed from its stately perch, atop a pedestal at the center of an expansive Stockholm plaza. In a short scene reminiscent of a Roy Andersson vignette, a group of workers observe as the procedure is botched; the horseman slips from its sling, his head popping off unceremoniously as the figure clatters to the stones below. The statue is replaced with a new art piece, a glowing square inlaid onto the ground, a vague conceptual statement on the divisions between personal and public space. Presented as a paradigm shift, the installation is ultimately just as sanctimonious and stuffy as the statue, a reminder that while art no longer manifests itself in vainglorious monuments to important men, it’s still often abused as a conduit through which ego can flow unchecked.

Taking up this concept as a cudgel, and operating with about as much subtlety as that collapsing statuary gag, The Square chronicles the downfall of museum curator Christian (Claes Bang), a buttoned-up would-be aesthete who fittingly wears his ego on his sleeve. That inflated sense of self-esteem is set to receive a thorough drubbing, as the self-serious functionary attempts to navigate a series of emerging crises contained within the complex world of contemporary art collection. The central conflict, meanwhile, takes place in an opposite realm of working class malaise and urban decay, after a convoluted pickpocket scheme exploits his masculine insecurities to relieve him of his cell phone and wallet. An attempt to retrieve them from a housing block on the wrong side of town then spins hilariously out of control, forcing Christian to reckon with threats to his perceived mastery stemming from all sides.

In assailing this bastion of wealthy white masculine privilege, the film presents a panoply of very easy targets, many of them mishandled. As with Östlund’s lighter, far-more-focused Force Majeure, the framing is that familiar style of satire in which vaunted societal institutions and traditions are revealed as mere ridiculous adornment over a dark heart of animalistic self-preservation. This cynical approach, in which all overtures toward thoughtfulness and compassion are eventually revealed as phony covers for base laziness and craven greed, pairs clumsily with the broad skewering of the art world, a setting obviously ripe for parody, yet which also consistently invites lazy satire. Jabs at social media culture, dramatized through a foolhardy quest to garner viral marketing for the museum’s new show, land better, yet still feel immured within an overlong film packed with flaccid scenarios and half-baked concepts.

There are two other notable moments, both great scenes in themselves, that each seem to land on a practicable method for telling this story, only to have that momentum almost immediately spoiled afterward. In the first, Christian attempts to reassert his prowess by sleeping with reporter Anne (Elisabeth Moss), a desperate move that doubles as a means of recovering from a bad interview conducted with her earlier on. Honest and genuine, Anne proves adept at shattering his pretentious attitude toward their tryst, which slides steadily into absurdity, culminating in an extended tug of war over a used condom. Yet instead of further implementing her as a level-headed alternative to its pompous protagonist, the film ends up stressing the character’s mental instability, subsuming her in a tired crazy-woman trope, just one more bad choice to punish Christian as his life caves in around him.

The second is the film’s climactic showpiece, in which a live presentation for the museum’s donors, featuring a simian performance artist stomping around their strait-laced evening gala, goes horribly awry. The scene is genuinely thrilling, particularly in the way it keeps a straight face, never revealing how much of the chaos is part of the artist’s intent, an uncertainty that infects the entire room as he wordlessly menaces the crowd. This is where an interesting modern satire might aim its sights, around the vague line between genuine boundary-breaking creative expression and empty chest-beating intensity, a fluid state matched by the public’s confused desire to be challenged but not overly provoked. Instead, The Square pushes toward the easier conclusion, devolving into yet another parable about the primacy of our animal instincts, falling back on the familiar balm of easy, aggressive cynicism.

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