People keep calling for help throughout Ruben Ostlund’s new movie “The Square.” You hear them almost subliminally at times; at other moments, they’re right in front of the main characters begging for assistance. The words “Help me,” the movie implies, have become merely part of the white noise of modern life, so prevalent that we no longer hear them — thus we lose the ability to help others and ourselves.
The movie is, on its surface, a dazzlingly dark satire of the international art world, one that can make you bust out in laughter one minute and bamboozle you with touches of surrealism the next. Östlund made his name with 2014’s “Force Majeure,” about a well-to-do family man who comes unglued when a natural disaster reveals his cowardice; “The Square” is more overtly comic but larger in scope, suggesting a culture obsessed with avant-garde fiddling while civilization burns.
Claes Bang plays Christian, the haute-hip curator of an art museum in Stockholm. He’s young, handsome, fastidiously cool — the very model of a modern major institutional head — but glimpses of cluelessness peer through the façade.
Christian is especially undone by the questions and flirtations of an American arts reporter, played by Elisabeth Moss with eyes that are either crazy or have his number. “The Square” has a great deal of fun with the museum’s vacuous exhibits and its politely Swedish administrative bureaucracy. One gallery is full of small pyramids of dirt; no one ever goes there except a janitor itching to do his job.
A meeting to discuss the promotion of the museum’s upcoming conceptual centerpiece — a brick-and-neon “square of empathy” outlined in the building’s courtyard — is disrupted by the presence of the squawking infant of one of the male employees. A press Q&A with a haughty artist played by Dominic West (“The Affair”) is interrupted by an attendee with Tourette syndrome. Everything is supposed to go smoothly and correctly in this best of all possible worlds. With dark amusement, it rarely does, and ultimately the hero finds his carefully curated universe falling apart.
Early in the film, Christian is the victim of a pickpocketing scam — the incident begins with a distant offscreen “help!” — that simultaneously tickles his sense of public performance and fires his thirst for revenge. With an eager if easily abused underling (Christopher Laesso), he embarks on a course of accusation that shakes out a possible malefactor and one wrongly targeted and very unhappy little boy, played by Elijandro Edouard as the film’s fierce conscience. This leads to a scene I won’t describe but that haunts the film and anyone who sees it. Again, it’s cued to a cry for help.
The scene I will describe — the outrageous, discomfiting centerpiece of “The Square” — is a fancy fund-raising dinner held at the museum, in which the surprise “act” is a performance by an artist named Oleg (played by American actor-stuntman Terry Notary). Shirtless and threatening, Oleg prowls the dinner hall while mimicking the behavior of an alpha-male great ape; the wealthy diners are amused at first but become motionless, their eyes downcast, as the scene tilts slowly and helplessly toward violence.
It’s a stunning sequence but it marks the moment where the movie starts to resemble what it’s satirizing. “The Square” is a high-minded artifact about people who make high-minded artifacts; the film glances at the homeless outside the museum but not a great deal more than the characters do, and in the end it stays too long at the fair, losing energy and focus in the final half hour.
But Ostlund is a gifted and provocative filmmaker, and only his movie’s glibness — the easiness of his targets and the slickness of the filmmaking — keeps it from stinging like vintage Luis Bunuel. And the old surrealist would have loved that dinner-party scene.
Written and directed by Ruben Ostlund. Starring Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary. At Kendall Square. 142 minutes. R (language, some strong sexual content, brief violence).
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