The title of “The Square,” the Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’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 — a high-wire ensemble comedy, a vivid character study, a tirelessly sustained volley of ideas — but it is no one’s idea of sanctuary. When the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, it was both 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, the world’s major film festivals very much included.
"The Square,” which will represent Sweden in the upcoming Oscar race for foreign-language film, may be addressing a broader, less industry-entangled crowd. But it has lost none of its scalding wit, its disarming playfulness or its ability to blur the lines between viewer discomfort and pleasure.
Östlund’s method, as always, is to stage the human comedy in miniature: 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, the director 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 progressive, humanist values.
As he demonstrated in his 2014 drama, “Force Majeure,” Östlund is a brilliant anatomist of upper-class male fragility and all-around human selfishness. But he is also a generous and unapologetic entertainer, a provocateur whose cool, clinical touch comes wrapped in seductive compositions (the cinematographer is Fredrik Wenzel) and sharply contoured performances.
The richest of these performances is given by a tall, dark and handsomely stubbled Danish actor named Claes Bang. He plays Christian, the X-Royal’s chief curator, a prominent member of his city’s cultural elite, and a classic Östlundian specimen of privileged heterosexual manhood.
Impeccably styled from his thick-rimmed glasses to his trendy scarves, Christian is the kind of poseur for whom the appearance of spontaneity is invariably 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 strategically disclosed around the halfway mark.
One aim of “The Square” is to lure him out of his white-walled intellectual cocoon. That journey begins when Christian is mugged in broad daylight, losing his cellphone and his wallet to a band of thieves who operate, fittingly enough, like performance artists. With the help of a junior colleague (Christopher Laessø), he tracks the phone to an apartment building in 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 — a burbling baby, a wailing homeless child — 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 prickly, vivacious Elisabeth Moss). Their dalliance occasions one of the film’s funniest and ickiest scenes, putting a vigorous carnal riff on the film’s inquiry into the dynamics and inequities of power.
Christian and Anne’s fling is just one sideshow in a movie that takes us on a roving, plot-free tour of the museum’s day-to-day operations. There are easy but priceless sight gags, like an installation that consists entirely of identical piles of granite, some of which are accidentally vacuumed up by the cleaning crew. The camera lingers on meetings where young outside contractors introduce outlandish new marketing strategies, resurrecting the age-old debate of art versus commerce in the clickbait age.
Some of the sharpest set pieces involve large groups of museum spectators, which allow Östlund to enact his version of Stanley Milgram’s experiments in norm violation and bystander apathy. One especially unnerving scene places us at a swanky gala dinner that is interrupted by a performance artist — played, brilliantly, by the actor and stunt coordinator Terry Notary, whose motion-capture work in the recent “Planet of the Apes” films serves him ferociously well here. There’s a pleasing meta-conceptual joke in the notion that what proves diverting in the context of a simian-themed Hollywood blockbuster might become actively terrifying in real life.
But in taking aim at the human capacity for cowardly groupthink — in suggesting that our species is, in the end, weaker, crueler and less evolved than we think — not every jab in this thoughtful, expansive movie finds its target. In laying a meticulous trap for the viewer, “The Square” at times veers into its own aesthetic and intellectual minefield.
The guilt we are expected to feel when beggars and drifters hobble into the frame might well be answered by skepticism about Östlund’s own dubious calculation, his reluctance to implicate himself or interrogate his own techniques. At times he seems to stretch the boundaries of typical human behavior to make a point about it, inviting you to wonder what you would do in his characters’ place.
To even consider that question, of course, is on some level to concede the effectiveness of his manipulations.
“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.