A prestigious Stockholm museum's chief art curator (Claes Bang) finds himself in times of both professional and personal crisis as he attempts to set up a new exhibit, The Square; becoming distracted by a relationship with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss), and a failed attempt at recovering some personal property.
Ruben Östlund's first film, Force Majeure, was a razor-sharp comedy about losing face in front of your partner during an extraordinary circumstance and never being able to recover from it, and made comedic use of how undeniably uncomfortable being confronted with the truth was. With The Square, it's the same thing - trying to maintain a facade of decorum, composure and sensitivity in the face of chaos and unpredictability. More to the point, what The Square does brilliantly is show up just how ridiculous it is in probably the most contrived of environments - the art world.
Claes Bang is a slick, well-heeled curator for a struggling-but-prestigious gallery and opens with him being interviewed by Elisabeth Moss, in which he's confronted with the typical art world spiel of meaning and perspective. What's so great about The Square is that whether you have an understanding of the art world or not is irrelevant; everybody can spot a bullshit artist (no pun intended) and that's just what Claes Bang's character is. The film wheels its way through different scenarios, the central crux of the film revolving around a new exhibit that states everyone inside the titular square is to be treated equally and everyone has a responsibility - within this square - to do likewise. All of this, of course, is being put together by an advertising agency and when marketers are brought in to try and boost the thing, the whole operation begins to wildly spiral out of control - all with Claes Bang's hapless curator trying to keep a lid on it and maintain composure.
The use of improvisation and the gentlest direction of the camera means that the comedy feels alive and vital, and makes the awkwardness - which is wielded likely a surgeon's scalpel throughout by Östlund's scripting and direction - all the more potent. There's parts of this film, particularly in an exchange over a used condom, that'll either have you crawling under the seat to avoid or rolling with laughter. Either way, it'll get a response out of you in a way that few comedies nowadays can do so. The supporting cast of Moss, Dominic West, Terry Notary - who plays a performance artist imitating a monkey and was an actual, real-life movement coach who worked on Planet Of The Apes - are all finely tuned to the general vibration that The Square exudes.
Östlund's talent for finding the humour with the most simplest of gestures and camera movements is on full display throughout The Square, and there's never a moment where something isn't happening - but it never feels busy or deliberate; it all just seems to happening in front of a completely neutral observer and the ridiculousness of it all is just happening before you without any kind of wider direction. It's not like certain American comedies where it's improvise and then cut it together in post; the fact is that it's so well written and directed that you don't see either of them working or happening as they're doing it.
While it may overstay its welcome a tad, and not every joke and comedic setpiece may land, The Square is by far the best comedy of its kind to arrive in cinemas this year.