The Square.

I imagine Sweden’s national tourism board is rather unhappy with the country’s portrayal in The Square, as writer-director Ruben Östlund has crafted a dense, multilayered, nonlinear, unfocused narrative that depicts Stockholm’s art community as a bunch of loonies. It’s fascinating, even gripping, frequently cringeworthy, twice offensive, too long by about ten minutes, and incisively satirical. Östlund doesn’t land all his punches, but the ones he lands hit hard. The film is mostly in Swedish, with subtitles; it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year and is Sweden’s submission for the 90th Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film honor.

Claes Bang plays Christian, the director of a modern art museum in Stockholm that tries to present edgy, post-modern installations, but often falls short of its own pretensions, a fact established and skewered in an early scene where American journalist Anne (Elizabeth Moss) asks him to explain a description from the museum’s official site. Christian is also dealing with an outside marketing agency to develop advertising for an upcoming installation, called The Square, that is just a lit square on the ground and a plaque explaining what the square is in vague philosophical terms – not exactly the most media-friendly piece of art. Christian is also robbed of his wallet and phone in an early scene, leading to a comically disastrous plan to recover the goods when his tech guy, Michael (Christopher Læssø), helps him locate the phone via GPS tracking.

Other plot threads and details appear late in the film, enough that mentioning them would spoil the effect even though they’re not plot twists – they’re just stuff the script forgot to mention earlier on in the proceedings. That gives the entire film a sense of unreality, which I’d compare favorably to the hysterical realism of Zadie Smith or Paul Beatty, and unfavorably to the failed experimental novel The Unconsoled, which also concerned an artist, by Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro. Ishiguro’s narrative makes sharp, jarring turns that lack narrative or thematic connections, and subplots are dropped without resolution, never to return. It’s unclear if the main character is even awake for some scenes, or dreaming, or hallucinating. The Square walks a similarly tortuous path, with more clarity that it’s all (probably) real, instead simply bouncing Christian from bad decision to bad decision, and introducing details – like the end of the performance art piece at the banquet, or the whole thing with Anne’s roommate – that are just never explained. This is hysterical realism bordering on the transgressive, with mixed results, but still earning high points for ambition.

Christian himself is part narcissist – to the extent that someone can be only partly narcissistic – and part idiot, calling to mind Sherman McCoy of The Bonfire of the Vanities, another antihero who does something incredibly stupid, only to have it come back around and ruin his life. McCoy had it coming, while Christian isn’t quite so loathsome, just governed too much by his instinct for self-preservation and a little too in love with the power of his position. He gets small chances for redemption near the end of the film, and largely takes them, although it can’t thoroughly rehabilitate his character or atone for the wrongs he’s done some other people (a la Ian McEwan’s Atonement).

The targets of this film’s satirical side are numerous, from the art world, especially modern art, to consumer culture to our willful ignorance of others’ suffering to the anachronisms of the upper class to sex, the last rather thoroughly demonstrated by one of the most joyless sex scenes I can remember seeing. The movie’s pièce de résistance, the aforementioned performance art scene at a banquet for the museum’s chief benefactors, manages to tear down multiple targets, including the fatuous nature of such self-congratulatory dinners, the idea of the artist being ‘totally’ committed to his work to the point of madness, the animal nature of man, and the bystander effect, the last two coming in the scene’s culmination of a physical and attempted sexual assault. Again, after the scene ends, there isn’t so much as another reference to any of it – it’s yet another disaster for the museum, but everyone proceeds the next day as if it never happened.

The Square is bursting with ideas, and many of them fail to hit their marks or are pushed via metaphors that are just too strong or on the nose. The modern art mockery is fish in a barrel stuff – really, that could have been one of the museum’s installations. The simian allusions are similarly too easy. But then there are scenes like the overhead shot of Christian rifling through garbage where the camera is high enough that his white shirt and brown hair just look like two more bags in the sea of trash, or the spiraling shot of a staircase (also top-down) as Christian climbs multiple floors but appears to make no progress.

No idea comes across more consistently in the film, however, than our numbness to the suffering of strangers, even when it’s right in front of us. Banquet goers put their heads down even as there’s a physical attack happening in front of them. Commuters ignore beggars in the street, the mall, the train station, and ignore the charity worker asking people if they’d stop for a minute “to save a life.” The video produced by the marketing agency, which is an obvious disaster along the lines of the SB Nation puff piece on rapist Daniel Holtzclaw, turns the idea inside out by preying on people’s sympathy for a fictional character crafted to maximize the viewers’ emotional reactions. It’s the one truly pervasive theme in the movie, and the closest thing the script has to a unifying element.

For all of that weightiness, The Square is also very funny, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes more “I can’t believe this is happening” funny, but even with its bleak view of humanity, the movie does go for some big laughs. There’s a fight over a condom, an argument interrupted by an art installation that keeps making noise at inopportune moments, another installation damaged in comical fashion by a night cleaner, and the sheer idiocy of the marketing agency bros. At nearly two and a half hours, it needs some levity to keep it moving – and many scenes in the first half go on a few beats too long – but the film will likely keep everyone who sees it thinking about all of its ideas for days.

But seriously, what is the deal with Anne’s roommate?

The Beguiled.

Sofia Coppola won the Best Director prize at this year’s Cannes festival for The Beguiled, making her just the second woman ever to win that honor (which is sort of an ‘honorable mention’ next to the Palme d’Or, which has only gone to a woman once in 70 years) and I would expect making her a very likely nominee for the same Oscar category. The film didn’t quite live up to that kind of billing for me, but is still very good, a thought-provoking, moody, well-shot and extremely well-acted movie that suffers just slightly from a thin and not entirely credible plot.

The story takes place in 1863 at a Virginia ‘seminary’ for girls, really more of a boarding and finishing school, run by Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) with help from teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), with five pupils remaining after others’ parents have pulled them out. The girls are also the school’s staff, as the slaves also fled the fighting in the area, with troops passing by the large estate that houses the school regularly over the course of the film’s 94 minutes. As the story opens, one of the youngest students finds Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a wounded Union soldier unable to walk, and brings him back to the house, where Martha decides to take him in and help him recover from a bullet wound to his leg before turning him over to Confederate troops or even passing Union soldiers. The introduction of a male contaminant into the all-female household has some predictable results, as sexual tensions and internecine rivalries spring up between the women, with the younger girls all flirting or just plain acting silly while the oldest three – Martha, Edwina, and Alicia – show signs of real attraction to the convalescent, who, by the way, isn’t real keen to get back to the front himself. Of course, this can’t abide, and eventually the pot simmers over and someone gets hurt, which turns the movie from a genteel and often funny look at gender dynamics into a dark, psychological thriller that pits the Corporal against the women and flips the power balance back and forth in the last half-hour of the film.

The performances sell this movie more than the story does; I am no expert at spotting movie twists, but the moment the key element in the story’s resolution appeared on screen, I knew what Coppola was showing us. But the three main women and Farrell all deliver right-tail level performances in their roles, especially Kidman and Dunst, whose characters have more nuance than Fanning, who is just frighteningly seductive despite rarely doing anything beyond looking at McBurney or the camera. (It kills me that the voice of Mei from My Neighbor Totoro is now making sexy eyes in grown-up movies.) Martha is the head of the school and the house, a woman in control who confesses to the corporal how exhausted she is by the role and, I presume, by the lack of anyone else in whom she might confide. Her attraction to the patient is slower to build and more reluctant, while Edwina exposes herself as the more miserable character, one whose romantic innocence doesn’t line up with her worldly upbringing. Both Kidman and Dunst fill out the corners of these characters with little aspects like Kidman’s clipped speech or Dunst’s mournful, almost haggard expressions, communicating their attractions to McBurney almost entirely through non-verbal and still era-appropriate body language and gestures.

Farrell’s character is less nuanced – it becomes clear after a bit that he’s playing the women individually, altering his language and tone to flatter each of them, even the children who are just mesmerized by the presence of a man, but it’s only after the major plot event around the two-thirds mark that Farrell gets to do something more than turning on the charm. This character has been deeply affected by what he’s seen and suffered at the front, but none of that surfaces until it’s provoked. Between In Bruges, The Lobster, and now The Beguiled, Farrell’s certainly shown remarkable acting prowess along with a willingness to take on some unconventional roles.

The Beguiled is also remarkable to look at, with lush sets and hazy, dark lighting that accentuates the moody nature of the script and its characters. The house is dim in the daytime and forbidding at night, while the characters are often surrounded by a slight fog or smoke that might be coming from nearby battles (we frequently hear gun and cannon fire in the distance). There are some exceptional close shots showing detail in the dresses and jewelry worn by the women, as well as some tremendous shots outside the house in the garden and the nearby forest. The two large scenes at the dinner table are incredibly evocative between the candlelight, the details of the table itself – even something as simple as one of the girls pouring wine from a decanter – and the visual transformation of the girls as they all get dressed up to impress their guest.

The story itself is based on a novel (originally titled A Painted Devil) by Thomas Cullinan and was previously filmed in 1971, and while Coppola has made a film that puts the women more at the center of the story, the plot remains a little thin. I mentioned the predictable ending above, and there’s also a gun that disappears and suddenly reappears as needed in a different character’s possession later in the film, with no explanation of how that happened other than that it was necessary for the plot. Edwina’s actions in the final third of the film also seem to come out of nowhere, or at least to be incongruous with what happened before in a way that I don’t think gives her character enough emotional consistency to seem real.

The Beguiled works because of the performances and the visual style, enough that I’d recommend it if you can enjoy a movie that brings you something beyond plot. If your tastes in movies are story-driven, this one just didn’t hold me; it feels like a short story stretched into 94 minutes rather than a novel condensed into that window. It lurches too much from A to B to C for me to give it a full recommendation, perhaps a result of my own obsession with plot constructions in literature, so that I left feeling like I would praise the actors involved for weeks but could give the entire plot with spoilers on one side of a 3×5 index card.