The square in Ruben Ostlund’s “The Square” is an art project, a square four meters that the artist designates as a “sanctuary of trust and caring.” This literal safe space invites the viewer to think about life outside the space, and the responsibilities we owe to each other.
The rectangle of the movie screen at a Ruben Ostlund film serves much the same function as the square, provoking us to think about how we live our lives beyond it. Ostlund’s films, especially 2014’s “Force Majeure” and now this one, are viciously funny social satires that peer uncomfortably at human behavior. How we act when we know everyone’s watching, versus how we act when we think we’re alone, provide rich territory for Ostlund.
“The Square," which won the Palme d'Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Wednesday at, fittingly, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, 227 State St. Admission is free for museum members, $7 for all others.
His protagonist/test subject in “The Square” is Christian (Claes Bang), the dapper, somewhat arrogant curator of the Stockholm museum that is hosting “The Square.” The irony that, as he walks to work to extol the virtues of such a compassionate project, Christian blithely ignores several homeless people asking for help, is not lost on the viewer.
Christian is a bit of an all-around phony. At an opening reception, he interrupts his prepared speech midstream to speak from the heart about what “The Square” means to him. It would seem awfully convincing — except that, in the previous scene, we saw him rehearsing his “impromptu” speech in the bathroom.
But then, the museum itself appears kind of phony. The exhibits there alternate between inscrutable abstract pieces (you can probably guess what an exhibit called “Piles of Gravel” looks like) and conceptual exhibits like “The Square," which seems like a social experiment designed to reinforce the belief of rich museum donors that they’re good and thoughtful people.
The piece of performance art that really grabs Christian’s attention, meanwhile, occurs on his way to work one day. Two people on the street stage what looks like a real fight and, in the ensuing scuffle, pickpocket Christian’s wallet and phone. His escalating quest to get them back causes his life to spiral out of control, even as he’s dealing with a series of crises at the museum. A hilariously awful promotional video that a couple of callow marketing guys come up with for “The Square” brings new meaning to the phrase “blowing up on YouTube.”
Again and again, Ostlund returns to the theme of human behavior, and the uneasy comedy that can result when so-called civilized people are pushed out of their comfort zones. The iconic image in an Ostlund film is a nervous, frozen little smile. That theme comes to a head in the film’s centerpiece scene, in which a performance artist pretending to be an ape (Terry Notary, who does motion-capture acting in the “Planet of the Ape” movies) amuses, then terrifies, a roomful of rich donors.
“The Square” deals with big questions — What is art? Can we live up to our ideals? Do we live in a civilized society or one ruled by the law of the jungle? — but it does so lightly, almost playfully. But that doesn’t make the questions any less serious, or less haunting.