But it’s not so simple. While Christian is willing to admit fault, he also feels compelled to note that the problem isn’t just a matter of his own thoughtlessness. (I’m refraining from saying what he did, since, like everything else that happens in “The Square,” it’s too surprising to spoil and too weird to explain.) There are social forces and economic structures at work, he says, large historical tendencies that both extend and extenuate his guilt. Immigration. Inequality. Social alienation. Global capitalism. That kind of thing. Christian knows a billionaire — a donor to the museum — who might be able to throw enough money at the problem to solve it. But even then …
Is there a saying about fish that live in glass barrels shooting themselves in the foot? Mr. Ostlund, whose film before this one was the squirmy, incisive “Force Majeure,” takes aim at some pretty fat satirical targets — art, taste, sex and money, for starters — and sprays buckshot at the audience as well as in his own face. The bad conscience of the cultural elite is hardly a new concern in European cinema (or American journalism, if we want to go there), and “The Square,” which won the Palme d’Or in May, uses some of the shock-the-bourgeoisie tactic refined, in recent years, by his fellow Cannes laureates Michael Haneke and Lars von Trier.
If Mr. Ostlund lacks Mr. Haneke’s rigor and Mr. von Trier’s sadism, he at least has a sense of humor. “The Square,” ragged and headlong, plays like a series of elaborately staged sketch-comedy routines. Or, closer to its own concerns, like an anthology of performance art pieces. Just about everything that happens to Christian has a conceptual dimension, an element of coy self-consciousness, that makes you wonder whether it’s just something that happened or a carefully planned and theorized happening.
Literally speaking, of course, the movie is a string of such events, though it manages to fool, or at least to tease, the characters as well as the viewers. The robbery that sets the main plot in motion seems at first like an art-world provocation, and before he quite understands what has happened, Christian experiences the kind of thrill that art is supposed to elicit. His one night stand with an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) is not so thrilling, but its very awkwardness has an arch, knowing quality. Staff meetings at the museum have a similar feel. Is the baby whom one of Christian’s colleagues brings into the room really his child? Is its presence a commentary on the persistence of innocence in a fallen world? What about Christian’s own daughters? Can any human action or feeling be called natural or real?