The title of “The Square,” Swedish writer-director Ruben Ostlund’s savagely entertaining new movie, refers to a 4-by-4-meter illuminated box etched in the cobblestones outside the X-Royal, a venerable if entirely fictional museum of contemporary art in Stockholm. The purpose of this exhibit is to promote a vague, universal notion of human empathy, as summed up by a placard bearing the remarkably straight-faced declaration, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring.”
The movie “The Square” may be many things — an ensemble comedy, a character study, a sustained volley of ideas — but it is hardly a sanctuary. When the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, it was a widely applauded choice and a deliciously ironic one, given how mercilessly the movie skewers the smug, self-congratulatory groupthink that often flourishes in artistic enclaves, including the world’s major film festivals.
But even beyond the film community, “The Square,” which will represent Sweden in the Oscar race for foreign-language film, has a scalding wit, a disarming playfulness and an ability to blur the lines between viewer discomfort and pleasure.
Nearly every scene is presented as an impeccably framed tableau, a tactic that effectively transforms characters, extras and audiences alike into participants in a grand sociological study. Flitting from one sly comic digression to the next, Ostlund conducts a broadly satirical investigation of both the modern art world and the troubled conscience of 21st-century Europe, indicting the hollowness lurking beneath its ostensibly humanist values.
The richest performance is given by Danish actor Claes Bang, playing Christian, the X-Royal’s chief curator, a prominent member of his city’s cultural elite, and a classic Ostlundian specimen of privileged heterosexual manhood. He is the kind of poseur for whom the appearance of spontaneity is the product of careful rehearsal. He’s a local celebrity who likes to guard his privacy, as we learn when some crucial character information is disclosed around the halfway mark.
One aim of “The Square” is to lure him out of his intellectual cocoon. That journey begins when Christian is mugged, losing his cellphone and his wallet to a band of thieves who operate, fittingly enough, like performance artists. He tracks the phone to a rough neighborhood, where, in a burst of desperation and callous glee, he executes an ill-advised plot to scare the thieves into giving up their contraband.
But his actions have cruel and unintended consequences, and his attempts to control the fallout only force him to further confront the raw human suffering in his midst. The most vivid face of that suffering turns out to be an angry young boy (a terrific Elijandro Edouard) from the projects, one of a few kids in the movie who take turns playing the voice of society’s conscience.
In other words, “The Square” suggests empathy, charity and concern are qualities that the most enlightened and liberal-minded among us sometimes extol more than they practice. Christian relishes his position as gatekeeper and the magnetism that it naturally confers, which gets him into some trouble when he begins flirting with an American journalist named Anne (a vivacious Elisabeth Moss). Their dalliance occasions one of the film’s funniest and ickiest scenes, but it’s just one sideshow in a movie that takes us on a roving, plot-free tour of the museum’s day-to-day operations.
“The Square” means to send you out of the theater arguing, and its success on that front should not eclipse its more lasting, unsettling achievement. It affirms that art, this movie very much included, can tell us things about ourselves that we’d prefer not to know.