The barrel, for the most part, is the contemporary art world in which theoretical jargon has taken the place of emotion, and where the pretentious language of the academy has superseded such passe aesthetic concerns as technical prowess, pictorial beauty and pleasure. Christian (Claes Bang), chief curator at a swank museum in Stockholm, personifies the values of his time and culture, affecting trendy suits, whimsical red eyeglasses and an air of concerned but easily distracted humanism. When Christian is robbed outside the museum, the episode sends him down an alternately amusing and alarming rabbit hole of revenge and unintended consequences; simultaneously a new installation called "The Square" — intended to question the "rights and obligations" of citizens occupying the same political and philosophical space — is creating problems of its own.
Taken individually, the scenes that "The Square" comprises are often marvelous to behold: The film begins with a funny interview between Christian and American journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss) in which she confronts him on the arcane gobbledygook in one of his programs; later, Ostlund stages a crowded street scene with Tharpian shrewdness and grace. Another scene with Anne, during which she encounters Christian in front of a teetering installation of stacked desks, echoes uncannily with current debates regarding sex and power within the art world and beyond, just as the film's most controversial sequence, featuring "Planet of the Apes" actor Terry Notary disrupting a black-tie dinner, confronts viewers with a meditation on men behaving badly and the bystander effect at their most primitive and elemental. (And yes, that's a very on-point Dominic West channeling Julian Schnabel as a pajama-clad visiting artist.)
There are bluntly absurdist touches and non sequiturs throughout "The Square" as well, and Ostlund flouts typical narrative structure, introducing crucial information about Christian more than halfway through the film. It's all funny — mostly — and Bang delivers a thoroughly convincing performance as a man embodying the most attenuated aspects of a social contract that has become fatally frayed (there are moments, especially when Christian is taken aback at some unexpected challenge or slight, when he resembles a modern-day James Mason).
Eventually, though, "The Square" feels fatally superficial, its provocations landing like pulled punches. When an a capella rendition of "Ave Maria" plays for the umpteenth time, it's clear that Ostlund doesn't have much new to say about trust, isolation, elitism and tribal paranoia, he's just found compelling images through which to say it. For all its stylishness and sophistication, "The Square" never adds up to more than its very attractive parts.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, some strong sexuality and brief violence. In Swedish and English with subtitles. 145 minutes.