It is fitting, one supposes, that much of The Square has nothing to do with the exhibition of the title. In fact, one could spend the entirety of this opening paragraph talking about exhibit itself. The content of the exhibit is a lighted square on a slightly raised platform made of bricks upon the pavement leading up to the museum that houses it. The label beside it reads, "The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it, we all share equal rights and obligations." The gimmick is mostly inexplicable, and that is because the nature of The Square, as with all art, is entirely interpretive.
Writer/director Ruben Ostlund certainly recognizes the interpretive nature of the work, reflecting that attitude in a comedy of which every element is designed to arouse a reaction. There is a question-and-answer session with another creator (played by Dominic West), whose own work is featured in the X-Royal Museum where The Square is housed, that is interrupted by a patron with a neuropsychiatric disorder that causes random outbursts of vulgarity. There is an extended sequence of performance art whose performer (played by Terry Notary) takes his act (a dinner party interrupted by a "wild animal" - in this case an ape) too far.
Those are just the broad strokes of Ostlund's screenplay, but the film ultimately becomes its own bit of performance art. Much of the narrative works to embarrass and humiliate its main character. Christian (Claes Bang) is the curator of the Swedish museum. During a random and inexplicable encounter with a woman screaming that a man who is following her will kill her, Christian discovers his phone and wallet missing, tracks them with the phone's GPS monitor to an apartment building on the side of town populated by those of a lower socioeconomic class than he, and spends the duration trying to find his belongings.
His attempt involves the random placement of the many copies of a letter threatening the thief, which certainly attracts the attention of a young boy whose parents punish him when they read the letter. It backfires, basically, on an epic scale, and that extends to his attention paid to the exhibit, which receives a bizarre and exploitive viral video involving a homeless child to accompany its release, and to his personal life, which is shambles, from children whom he rarely sees and often forgets to a romance with Anne (Elizabeth Moss), the American reporter sent to interview him, that ends when the sex they have fizzles out because of an awkward exchange regarding the condom used in the act.
All of this is very perceptive about ego, art, what drives both, and how each drives the other. It is also, on a superficial level, about none of that and more about how ludicrous the developments in the plot become, such as the tense and mature confrontation between Christian and Anne is deflated by the backdrop of an intrusively noisy exhibit involving a large pile of wobbling chairs or how a press conference to explain why there will be consequences for the offensive campaign ad for the title exhibit is disrupted by a free press asking for wider, less-clear consequences for what they see as an attack on free speech. The Square is about all of this. It's also about none of it, which probably means it's about all of it. That goes for the movie, too.
Claes Bang (Christian), Elisabeth Moss (Anne), Christopher Laesso (Michael), Terry Notary (Oleg), Dominic West (Julian).
Directed and written by Ruben Ostlund.
Rated R (language, sexual content, brief violence).
Released in select cities on October 27, 2017.