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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘The Square’: a fable for the 21st century

Magic Lantern fans will have the chance to see "The Square," the latest film by Swedish director Ruben Östlund, when it opens today. Following is the review of the film that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

One of the more interesting films to come out of 2014 was a Swedish gem titled “Force Majeure” – a dark tale, written and directed by Ruben Östlund, that explores what happens when a man lies not just to his wife and children but, maybe worst of all, to himself.

Östlund’s new project – which opens today at the Magic Lantern Theatre – is equally fascinating. Darkly comic and anxiety-inducing, to be sure, but fascinating.

Titled “The Square,” Östlund’s film focuses on Christian (Claes Bang), the Nordically urbane curator of a Stockholm modern art museum. Well-versed in talking to crowds, a number of whom are likely wealthy potential patrons, Christian can say all the right things – even while addressing the vagaries of artistic double-speak – in support of the kind of art that would beg the indulgence of Jackson Pollock.

Christian, then, makes the perfect agent for Östlund as the filmmaker satirizes not only art, artists and those whose job it is to market it, but the faux sanctimony of Swedish society – though we in the U.S. shouldn’t begin to celebrate our superiority anytime soon. What Östlund focuses on is society’s claim to value humanity even as that society looks down on individual humans.

The very concept trumpeted by the work of art from which the movie takes its title comes across as less naïve than wantonly ignorant. The installation, which is basically a square-shaped lit tube placed in the middle of a brick courtyard, comes with an inscription that reads, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.”

Right. Yet throughout Östlund’s movie, people walk past those in need. And even when they do stop to help, bad things tend to happen. Ingratitude at the least. Robbery at the worst. Both happen to Christian, though the latter is more important because it’s what propels the movie’s narrative.

After being tricked into acting as any good citizen might, Christian finds that he has lost both his phone and wallet. In an attempt to get his possessions back, he posts a threatening letter to every resident of a dodgy apartment complex. And his scheme works. But his actions also attract the attention of someone he has inadvertently wrongly accused, a young boy who promises to bring “chaos” on Christian if he doesn’t apologize.

Meanwhile, the museum is amping up its marketing campaign for the new exhibit, one recommendation being so ludicrous that two characters – playing the chorus to our greater conscience – actually snicker during its presentation. But Christian, involved in dealing with the chaos that is slowly taking over his life – including the robbery, the actions of the unjustly accused kid, and the woman (played by Elizabeth Moss) with whom he performs perhaps the most discomfiting sex scene in film history – offhandedly OKs the campaign. And in doing so, he seals his fate.

Östlund fills his film with uncomfortable moments – off-screen noises, crying babies, and one confounding sequence involving an artiste impersonating an ape – but it’s all in service of an idea: Hypocrisy, thy name is the 21st century.