The title of this supremely fresh, witty and thought-provoking new film by Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund ('Force Majeure') refers mainly to a new exhibit on display at a museum of contemporary art: a neon-bordered bit of brick flooring of some 16 square metres described by its creator as ‘a sanctuary of trust and caring’ where we all ‘share equal rights and obligations’. But the word might also refer to the city square Christian – the museum’s head curator – is crossing when he becomes the victim of a scam that relieves him of his wallet and phone. To recover them he’s reluctantly persuaded by an assistant to adopt a strategy which has unexpected consequences not only for himself but for colleagues and even complete strangers.
Then there’s possibly a third meaning to the title, since the film is about different sorts of metaphorical space. As we follow the intelligent, pleasant, perfectly well-intentioned Christian (Claes Bang in a nicely judged performance) in his increasingly difficult dealings with the press – notably an American journalist played by Elisabeth Moss – the museum’s marketing department, sponsors, artists (one played by Dominic West), his daughters and the aforementioned strangers, the film explores the limits of responsibility, culpability, connectivity, even humanity. (There’s some fascinating stuff to do with primates, although it's best not to ruin that surprise.)
It’s one thing for a well-off liberal to wax lyrical about equality, community, a fair society and so on, but how far do our responsibilities really extend towards others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves? Where does our own particular ‘square’ end and the surrounding infinity that is the lives of others begin?
Östlund’s film deals, then, with questions similar to those found in Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke’s 'Code Unknown' (and, to a lesser degree, 'Hidden'). Stylistically, however, it could not be more different. With its story built out of substantial but discrete blocks, many of them notable for their bone-dry humour, it sometimes calls to mind the dark comedies of Östlund’s fellow Swede Roy Andersson, albeit with a less surreally heightened visual style. (That said, Östlund’s sophisticated play with squares and other shapes throughout the movie – as when Christian, fearing chaos after he loses his daughters in a shopping mall, is shown trapped in a web of diagonal staircases – subtly enhances its themes.) If the film has any flaw, it could be that it juggles too many good ideas. But why complain about that?