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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Square (2017)

Boy, people sure like to name motion pictures after the geometrical shape composed of four straight lines. When I say “The Square,” what movie am I talking about? Am I referring to the underseen and underrated Australian thriller from 2008? Am I talking about the 2013 Egyptian documentary, which was also nominated for an Oscar back in 2014? Am I referring to at least two other documentaries that exist with the same name? Or am I discussing the 2017 Swedish film that is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Oscars? In this case, I'm discussing the latter most movie. Gee, who would've thought that a square, perhaps the simplest shape anyone could draw, would inspire so many filmmakers?

This particular “Square” is set at the X-Royal art museum in Stockholm, housed within the former Royal Palace. The film follows Christian, the museum's troubled curator. Christian does not have an easy job. He struggles to find ways to keep the museum's artwork relevant in a fast paced, ADHD-afflicted world. He struggles as a single father to two rambunctious young girls. His sex life and the egotistic artists he deals with are also sources of frustration. Mostly, the museum's latest star attraction is what's causing him the most grief. A simple square painted onto the ground, the artist set out to make a symbol of altruism and giving. The advertising company the museum hired produced a sensationalist YouTube video that has become a meme, attracting attention and controversy to the museum.

When you look at the films usually nominated for Best Foreign Language Film, you do not usually see an upbeat collection of movies. Just due to the nature of the beast, the films that get attention usually deal with weighty or difficult topics. “The Square” does, in its way, tackle heavy issues. Yet it's also a really funny film. Much of “The Square” deals with contrasting the world of pretentious, high art with more earthly manners. A wordy interview with an artist is interrupted by an audience member who claims to have Tourettes, filling the quiet conference room with shouted profanity. The artist's display is piles of dirt and gravel laid out in a room. At one point, a janitor nearly vacuums up the artwork. Later, the female journalist Christian had a one-night stand with attempts to talk to him while an odd art piece – a pile of chairs, that wavers back and forth and makes a loud, mechanical noise – repeatedly interrupts them. Christian goes from the high class world of the museum to slam-dancing in a noisy club. A cellphone rings during another artistic display. In “The Square,” heady, thoughtful ideas are constantly being derailed by lower instincts.

Pretty much any movie about art or a museum has to tackle the same concept: What role does art play in our modern lives? “The Square” deals with this too, though it ties in with the movie's comedic instincts as well. The main plot, of the museum trying to sell abstract art to the world, directly grapples with this. The weird, quiet art displays are outright compared with other displays, like the flashy cheerleader competition Christian's daughters run through. There's also the question of what the boundaries of art are. By seeing stuff like piles of dirt or chairs presented as art, the audience questions what art even is. “The Square” also questions the limits of art. In a key scene, a shirtless performance artist walks through a dining room and acts like a wild chimpanzee. Eventually, the act gets violent. It's a darkly hilarious and unforgettable scene, inspired by a real stunt and starring one of the performers from the modern “Planet of the Apes” series.

A major subplot in “The Square” involves someone stealing Christian's cellphone and cuff links. The phone's built-in GPS reveals that it's located at a local apartment building. An assistant convinces Christian to mail an accusing, threatening letter to every tenant in the building, hoping to find the thief. This backfires in ways both hilarious and tense. Homeless people constantly appear at the margins of the film's stories. All of this feeds back to the titular art pieces, a simple square on the floor that encourages people to be kind to each other. It's a simple honorable message that nearly everyone in the movie ignores. (Including the museum, who sells the art piece with a video of a child exploding.) “The Square,” using humor and biting satire, asks us why such a simple idea is so difficult to adhere by.

Much of “The Square's” humor comes from its great lead performance. Claes Bang effortlessly switches back and forth between English and Swedish, showing nary an accent. Christian is a man constantly thrust into awkward situations. Whether its his daughters slamming a door, a poor kid confronting him, a tense press conference, or an awkward post-sex conversation with an ill-advised hook-up,  Christian responses with stuttering, self-deflating clumsiness. Bang is hilarious in the part. Elisabeth Moss also appears the journalist Bang's sleeps with. Aside from the surprisingly frank and genuinely erotic sex scene, Moss shows a lot of fine comedic talent in her handful of scenes.

“The Square” is one of the longest films I've watched for this year's Oscar marathon, playing over two and a half hours. Compared to the some of the other long films I've watched this month, “The Square” just breezes by, making me laugh and making my jaw drop. It's a frequently hilarious film that conveys some heavy ideas with humor and striking images. Out of the Foreign Language Film nominees I've seen, they've all been really good. However, this one might be the closest to a straight-up masterpiece, a daring and amusing movie that lingers in the memory and makes you laugh and think. [9/10]

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