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Ruben Östlund’s ‘The Square’ is a virtuoso satire of the modern art world

The title of “The Square,” the Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund’s savagely entertaining new movie, refers to a 4-by-4-meter illuminated box etched in the cobblestones outside the X-Royal, a venerable if entirely fictional museum of contemporary art in Stockholm. The purpose of this exhibit is to promote a vague, universal notion of human empathy, as summed up by a placard bearing the remarkably straight-faced declaration, “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring.”

The movie “The Square” may be many things — a high-wire ensemble comedy, a vivid character study, a tirelessly sustained volley of ideas — but it is no one’s idea of sanctuary. When the film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in May, it was both a widely applauded choice and a deliciously ironic one, given how mercilessly the movie skewers the smug, self-congratulatory groupthink that often flourishes in artistic enclaves, the world’s major film festivals very much included.

Now opening theatrically in a new cut that runs a leisurely 151 minutes (four minutes shorter than the version that played at Cannes), “The Square,” which will represent Sweden in the upcoming Oscar race for best foreign-language film, may be addressing a broader, less industry-entangled crowd. But it has lost none of its scalding wit, its disarming playfulness or its ability to blur the lines between viewer discomfort and pleasure.

Östlund’s method, as always, is to stage the human comedy in miniature: Nearly every scene is presented as an impeccably framed tableau, a tactic that effectively transforms characters, extras and audiences alike into participants in a grand sociological study. Flitting from one sly comic digression to the next, the director conducts a broadly satirical investigation of both the modern art world and the troubled conscience of 21st-century Europe, indicting the hollowness lurking beneath its ostensibly progressive, humanist values.

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