Arthouse films that arrive on the big screen already with a shelf of awards bowing under the weight of their own worthlessness come with a set of preconceived notions that affect the way every well-informed viewer watches them.
Clearing up at the European Film Awards, winning the Palme d’Or and being nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award creates the assumption that The Square is going to be one of two things. Either it will be absolutely vanilla, so inoffensive to anyone, or it must be an inaccessible critics’ film, completely incomprehensible to almost everyone.
The Square is thankfully neither of those and is instead the best film about white, middle-class male privilege that you will see all year. As back-handed a compliment as that might seem to be, its combination of acerbic satire, awkward social comedy and the overwhelming sense that something could go horrifically wrong at any moment has not been blended so well since Lars von Trier’s The Idiots.
Claes Bang is a revelation as Christian, the compromised museum curator whose lack of perception of his innate privilege causes so many of the uncomfortable (and potentially disastrous) situations that he finds himself in. Having mostly acted in Danish television, his break-out performance is both excellent comedically and works as a commentary on any white man in a position of power.
Although Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West could be seen, cynically, as a little bit of Hollywood tokenism to pull in a crowd that otherwise wouldn’t be interested in a film about a museum curator, they both excel in their very different roles. Dominic West has the less demanding role of an artist who has an interview that is interrupted by an audience member with Tourette’s, while Elizabeth Moss surprises with her ability to be both charming and unnerving at the same time.
The centrepiece of the film is an terrifyingly uncomfortable scene at a museum dinner, where a performance artist (Terry Notary) distresses patrons by his commitment to his art. To say any more would be to spoil the effect, but it is a self-contained masterpiece of embarrassment and apprehension.
The eponymous Square is a conceptual piece of modern art, a 'safe space' where anyone can feel safe amongst the hustle and bustle of the city. No-one in the film, though, is safe from Östlund’s subtle critique, yet it is done with such empathy that it never seems mean-spirited. Ultimately, The Square is extremely funny and that's something no amount of awards can ruin.