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Art and Film: Ruben �stlund�s bloated indignation

Hilariously unsettling: During an elegant dinner party for museum patrons, a performance artist acts like an animal, jumping on tabletops�and�attacking the guests in The Square.

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / The art world and the bourgeoisie are taking a cinematic beating this year. Noah Baumbach�s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) mercilessly exposes the resentments of has-been art stars, and Yorgos Lanthimos� The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a supremely creepy and deeply humorous takedown of the upper-middle class in all of its complacency, triviality, hypocrisy, and hollowness.�Swedish writer-director Ruben �stlund confronts both art and class in The Square, which won the Palme d�Or at Cannes this year.

This�provocative�satire contains several undeniably crowd-pleasing scenes � an asinine attempt by an art museum curator (Claes Bang, trapped in an erratically written role) to explain a incoherently jargon-laden curatorial statement; a fraught press conference featuring an unctuous pajama-wearing artist (Dominic West, on target); a cringe-making sexual encounter between the curator and a climbing art journalist (a droll Elisabeth Moss) involving a contested condom; a hilariously unsettling art patron dinner that serves as a fearsome metaphor for both Trump�s ascendance and the perceived threat of the other. These may explain the film�s appeal to juries on the lookout for relatable distinctiveness and venom. But they are still set-pieces deprived of a cohesive larger construct, so The Square � especially after �stlund�s tight, beautifully balanced satire Force Majeure � is a minor disappointment.

As the film opens, the Swedish monarchy has been abolished, and the palace converted into an art museum called the X-Royal. Christian, the curator, can afford to be a showy liberal from his sheltered perch. But he remains convinced that the less fortunate are venal and predatory and can�t conform to civilized Swedish norms � �stlund depicts them as such � and indicts them collectively after his pocket is picked in a street scam. The curator�is not above exploiting the underclass to create buzz about a major exhibition to attract donors and visitors. Fulfilling that requirement, of course, is all the more difficult when the museum has to promote a fatuous conceptual art installation like �The Square� � a four-by-four-meter lighted boundary on the museum promenade endowed with a plaque that reads: �The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.�

The public relations team retained by Christian comes up with a repellently cynical video involving a little blonde beggar-girl that they hope will go viral but blows up in their faces, as it were. The episode is funny but rather obvious. A chastened Christian now sees that his embrace of the less fortunate has been merely decorative, and that a proffered video apology for a particular injustice he has visited on a young, apparently immigrant boy too precious and rhetorically hedged with exculpatory liberal bromides to be authentic. To raise his ethical game, he decides to seek out the boy�s family in person and submit to their judgment. If only it were that easy. To his credit, �stlund recognizes that Christian�s solution is too pat to be viable in a confused and messy real world, and leaves him groping for an answer � and unemployed. The class struggle continues without much added enlightenment, and the art world, ever the easy mark, takes a hit.

The Square, written and directed by�Ruben �stlund.

Related posts:
Art and Film: Noah Baumbach�s New York state of mind
Art and Film: Ghost as witness
Art and Film: Wajda�s final word on art and politics

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