Sunday, November 26, 2017

Art Attack: THE SQUARE

Ruben Östlund makes thesis movies, films laying out clinical observations about human interactions and then slowly working out a variety of scenarios in response that serve to bolster the central argument. It worked so well in his prickly, icily perceptive Force Majeure – a mercilessly contained film about a ski trip that turns sour when the dopey dad flees an avalanche and leaves his wife and kids to fend for themselves, an act of cowardice that’s even more pathetic when the disaster doesn’t strike – that there’s little wonder The Square can’t compete in focused anxiety. It drifts and wanders where the earlier film bored down with unflinching examination. But Östlund remains an expert dramatist of exceptional awkward encounters, scenes squirming with discomfort. It makes for a compelling watch. Here the plot precariously teeters (wobbling on the line between too-obvious and too-obtuse) on a Stockholm museum of contemporary art where good progressive values and high-minded boundary pushing are all well and good until they’re put to the test in the lives of the curator (Claes Bang) and his staff. This is heightened by Östlund’s stubborn camera, locked down in such a way that often leaves a confrontation bifurcated, half playing out off screen. It’s about reactions, about the complications stirring up distress despite and because of our inability to completely understand what’s going on.

Contained in a gallery – piles of ashen gravel; a wall-sized video portrait of a growling man; a pile of chairs with a scraping soundtrack – it’s fine, even noble, to see provocations. But then a pickpocket’s convoluted scheme interrupts a morning commute, a patron with Tourette’s constantly and profanely interrupts an artist (Dominic West) during a serious Q&A session, a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) interrogates her one-night-stand while a docent peers around the corner to eavesdrop, callow young ad men propose a nasty viral video to promote a peaceful installation, or a performance artist (Terry Notary) monkeying around escalates anxiety in a posh fundraising dinner. Well, that’s another thing entirely. Here’s a world of big money donors and thoughtful artists while beggers sit ignored on the street outside before them. How productive is an interest in being provoked if it’s only to be easily digested and safely squared away? Early in the film, the curator explains a conundrum: will anything become art if placed in an art museum? What, then, about the opposite? Is a provocation only fruitful when safely walled-off? What is a boundary of good taste, of free speech, of proper behavior? This is a fussily meandering movie, slowly interrogating the ideas by knocking the characters out of their comfort zones and then pulling them back, leaving them frazzled. The movie slowly accrues, and ultimately peters out, but moment by fascinatingly uncomfortable moment it’s hilariously sharp. Painstakingly dissected encounters, pulled off with fine deadpan slightly-heightened realism, become, at their best, sustained tremors of pleasurable suspenseful disruption.

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