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RUBEN ÖSTLUND: THE SQUARE (2017) - NYFF

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TERRY NOTARY IN THE SQUARE

Östlund's new film is a prizewinning dazzler, but lacks clear focus

Östlund'S The Square is a crisp and thrilling festival film, full of drama, shock, and hilarity, and with a terrific soundtrack - but contents one has some difficulty imagining a mainstream audience putting up with or having the patience for, since it's weird and two hours and twenty-two minutes long. Nonetheless it has a US distributor, Magnolia. It's a good-looking film, notable for a powerful use of music and ambient sound. It was great to watch it at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, surely the best place to watch, but also particularly to hear, a movie in New York City, if not the whole country (even if it could use some new seats).

How did this film win the Palme d'Or at Cannes? Perhaps first of all for being intense, entertaining, and unclassifiable. It's like a performance piece and also about a performance piece. Its main character, Christian (the suavely awkward and watchable Claes Bang), is the director of the hippest major art museum in Stockholm. Not wholly unintentionally, the movie confuses him with an artist and he - and the public - confuses art with attention-getting PR.

The Square is cool, but too diffuse to deserve being called the best of Cannes. Östlund crams miscellaneous anecdotes into the film from here and there. It's an omnibus film, curiously scattershot after the intense focus of the director's previous one, Force Majeure, though it's got a morally weak protagonist, like that one, as well as a malevolent child, like in Östlund's more clinical and troubling Play (NYFF 2011). It's got too much going on. In that, it's just the opposite of Force Majeure, which focussed relentlessly on one man's moment of cowardice and its drawn-out consequences. Christian is a morally weak man too, like Force Majeure's Tomas, but he's high-profile, powerful, and experienced at putting on an elegant, sophisticated front, which is very different from Tomas.

Force Majeure had one dramatic natural set piece, but just one. The Square has several, and Östlund winds things up with a spectacular set piece, of a motion capture artist (Terry Notary) as a wild man terrorizing a glittering crowd of the rich in a gilded, palatial hall. This is more and even better performance art, dazzling and rather scary - but it doesn't tie things together. It's just one more impressive, stylish attention-getter. The Square sure is strange stuff coming from a Swede. It does vaguely remind one of Michael Haneke. Some of its barbs at the expense of contemporary (earthworks, conceptual, and performance) art are well deserved, but in their blanket quality there's an air of philistinism about them, too, a weakness of the scattershot methods.

In the first set piece, Christian gets cleverly mugged in a big public square in initially scary, disorienting circumstances. There is some kind of big fracas in a crowd and Christian thinks he's helping a guy who seems terrified and menaced by persons unknown. When they separate, he finds his wallet, phone, and even cufflinks have been deftly lifted. It's actually a conventual ploy, but it's staged dramatically - with Östlund's good use of loud sound effects and mockingly soothing music throughout - so it fools us, because we're not clued in on what's happening. Anything could have been going on, including performance art. Is robbery a kid of performance art: performance art a form of robbery?

This experience of being robbed while thinking he's being helpful is why later Christian commissions a public artwork called "The Square," to be a space, in a public place, that's guaranteed to be honest and safe and free, for those who choose to make it so. This is a symbolic reference to the social contract, also a reference to the world of Östlund's father's or grandfather's times when you could leave a child in a public square and know he'd be safe. Ironically, that's now reduced to an art concept.

Christian also has two young men who seem journalists, but apparently are hired to do PR for the museum. If they're a comedy team, they're a dangerous one, since they later create a promotional video online to attract interest in "The Square" that is so violent and tasteless it causes public outcry. The two young men are shock artists themselves, and Christian's mistake is to let them act without supervision.

Claes Bang is great doing a combination of clumsy foolishness and experienced coverup, but the editor needed to cut out some of this stuff. And why is there all this running up and down the parallel stairs of two apartment buildings, Christian's posh one and the poor banlieue one? Why must Christian drag his two young daughters back there? After a while the humor wears thin and the mockery of contemporary art is, as mentioned, far too heavy-handed. The send-up of today's art in the age of Banksy and Ai Weiwei as hard to distinguish from advertising or propaganda is valid, but there's no distinction made between frauds and authentic artists of the last fifty years.

One of the major episodes is Christian's effort, with his museum assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø), to scam the robber into coming forward and returning his wallet, phone, and cufflinks: they go in Christian's Tesla to a ghetto-ish development on the edge of town he's tracked his phone to, where Christian distributes threatening letters to all the apartments in the building. (This apparently is something that once worked, in Östlund's hometown of Göthenberg: itt might work less well a town that's 50% bigger. The episode isn't helped by being implausible. ) This shows up Christian's fear of the poor, one supposes. Only isn't that perfectly normal, to be uncomfortable doing this? Naturally, Michael, who is black, finds a Tesla not a very comfortable place to sit and wait in a ghetto area. Christian winds up having an aggressive kid, aggrieved by the letter, on his case - one of his endless problems.

The film ends with Christian's resignation, due to the offensive publicity video he shouldn't have let happen. Only it doesn't end, because it drags on and on. Bang's manipulation of art world bureaucratese is convincing, but enough is enough.

The humor is at the expense of the privileged, like Christian, who cater to the hyper-rich. But men are also a target, and Östlund can't resist working in Elizabeth Moss as an American journalist, who does a short interview with Christian and later has sex with him, then gets on his case about it. All good fun? But also a bit embarrassing. Östlund uses threats of, or actual, violence and loud noises skillfully to keep us viewers on our toes, and various well-staged scenes have theatrical panache, but in the end they begin to seem like an enjoyable smokescreen to cover up the lack of unity and focus of this overlong but otherwise enjoyable and original film. One knows Östlund will go on making interesting and increasingly ambitious films, hopefully leaving out the kitchen sink next time.

The Square, 2 hrs. 22 mins., debuted at Cannes 20 May 2017, winning the Palme d'Or. Nearly two dozen other international festivals. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival, showing 19 Sept. 2017. Limited US release by Magnolia Pictures to begin 27 Oct. 2017.

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CHRISTOPHER LÆSSØ, CLAES BANG IN THE SQUARE

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