But the movie is filled with tiny, resonant details: an online description of a museum event that’s a spot-on recreation of arts marketing gibberish, an interview with a visiting artist (Dominic West) that has such figures’ double-talk down cold, the way a YouTube rep who calls Christian about a viral video explains, “I haven’t seen the clip myself. I don’t work with content.” (The indisputable silliness of this world requires just the slightest twist to become satire.) Östlund frames these events in his deadpan visual style – there’s something Nordic about it, as it seems at least somewhat inspired by Roy Andersson’s – and lays in a soothing score that seems, in spots, to all but mock the audience.
Östlund can be as much a sociologist (or, frankly, anthropologist) as a filmmaker; he delights in placing his characters in uncomfortable social situations, and watching them squirm (or not). They’re not big on introspection; there’s a moment where Christian seems right on the verge of admitting a the bare minimum of prejudice and privilege, confessing, “These negative expectations say something about me,” before correcting himself: “…say something about our society.” He shifts blame the very moment he accepts it.
But Östlund won’t let his characters get away with that. There’s a remarkable scene, at a fancy benefit event, in which an artist comes into the dining room doing a bit of “wild animal” performance art, complete with opening announcement (“You can hide in the herd, safe in the knowledge that someone else will be the prey”). At first, the patrons chuckle at his howling and intimidation, amused and “involved.” But the scene is an unexpected powder keg, as it becomes clear the artist isn’t playing around, and won’t be persuaded to. And there, Östlund gets at the what makes a movie like The Square seem even more provocative than it is: We love the idea that art should be confrontational. But we don’t really like to be confronted by it.
“The Square” is out Friday in limited release.