The Square ★★★★

Subjectively speaking, perhaps I am over-rating The Square.  As a young professional a year or two out of graduate school, I was asked to serve on the boards of a couple of arts organizations.  My significant other was an "artist," and my firm saw it as a good opportunity for networking. But that whole phase of my career - enduring the sort of things that would have elevated someone who’s done what I’ve done for as long I have to a loftier social and economic status than I'm at now - ended a long time ago. And although I’d like to attribute my lack of participation in such activities to an admirably low level of ambition, in all honesty, it was probably more about my tragically low tolerance for bullshit. Suffice it to say, I have enough of a familiarity with - and disdain for - the patrons and the pickers of modern art, at whom writer/director Ruben Ostlund is aiming his sight.

And yet, if satire is the destroyer of artifice, then with The Square, Ostlund’s weilds it like a sawed-off shotgun.  There is plenty of collateral damage to go around.  (The second scene shows one of the many homeless persons who appear prominently and passively in this film lying within earshot of a flier-wielding activist asking commuters, “Do you want to save a life?”)  As such, I've noticed that fans of this film seem to zone in on one of several sub-themes that spark their interest.  For Pedro Almodovar (the head of the Cannes committee that awarded the Palm d’Or), The Square is all about “the dictatorship of being politically correct.”  For me, the most interesting aspects revolved around the question of what kind of art is awarded a public space when the one-percenters are ultimately footing the bill.  The answer: just edgy enough so that all of those beautiful people can pat themselves on the back for entertaining a fleeting sense of self-consciousness on their way out the gala doors.  Indeed, the most memorable sequence of the film proposes a scenario where one artist (the exquisitely feral Terry Notary) dares to step out of that neon-lined square of permissible provocation.

Nonetheless, as astutely written, directed, and performed as it is, The Square is one of those films that is ultimately burdened by one of its primary strengths: its episodic breadth.  The first hour or so sets up one of my favorite films of the year; the next hour and a half drags down the overall impact of the piece.  There are a number of sequences (e.g., the subplot with Elizabeth Moss’ journalist, which is oversold in the trailer) that feel like deleted scenes from a Bluray (you know, the kind with the voiceover of the director saying, “I hated to cut that performance, but it ended up breaking the rhythm.”)  Specifically, if I were the armchair dictator of editing, this film would have ended with a certain overhead shot in the rain - 22 minutes before the actual ending, and most notably, without including Ostlund's characteristic ironic twist.

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