We first meet Christian (Claes Bang) lying on his sofa at work and awoken to give an interview with an American journalist, Anne (Elisabeth Moss). He is the curator of a contemporary art museum and Anne wants to him to explain his comments about exhibitions. Östlund wrote the screenplay and his take on art-world babble is brilliant. In a nice visual touch, Christian is also filmed with the words YOU ARE NOTHING in neon tube lighting behind him. In fact, the contemporary art world takes a bit of a hammering. We meet an artist Gijoni (Dominic West) who only ever seems to wear pyjamas, albeit under a nice jacket: he’s responsible for the neat piles of gravel that are rarely visited and even swept up by an industrial cleaner. Then there’s performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), at first seen menacingly on a huge screen behind Christian, and later in the flesh at a disastrous and surreal museum dinner.
Art is not the only victim of Östlund’s often hilarious and super-smart script. Political correctness also takes a bit of a bashing. We see a PR guy coming to a museum meeting with his young baby, all squeals and dropped pacifiers. The museum director has a beautiful grey whippet – surely a Palme Dog contender – who patters into the office. When Gijoni is giving an interview about his work, a man with Tourette Syndrome intervenes with a torrent of abuse hurled at the artist and the museum. Although some audience members take offence, there is an outpouring of support for the foul-mouthed sufferer, not least from the artist himself. This also leads to a brilliant scene in which Anne mimics the sufferer when she sees Christian at a party. And when Christian ponders whether to do something extreme, his coworker Michael (Christopher Læssø) tells him to ‘ditch the political correctness crap’.
That extreme act is at the core of the story. When Christian is on his way to work, he is duped into thinking he is rescuing someone when in fact he is being pick-pocketed. When Michael discovers where the smartphone is, the two men come up with the idea of writing a threatening letter to everyone in the building, demanding the return of his belongings. This starts a chain reaction, with Christian falling victim to his own egotistical actions.
There are some issues with the storyline here, as the farcical becomes too incredible and the desperation too operatic, Östlund unable to contain himself or his characters, of whom there are too many. As soon as we are introduced to Christian’s daughters, something leaves the film: a structure and tightness is lost as everything unravels a bit. It is also too long. A good 30 minutes could have been surrendered and we could have had a perfect film.
As it is, we have a flawed but brilliant film, with fantastically written dialogue. It is so refreshing to watch such a grown up film, in which the grown-ups behave so appallingly. It also has one of the funniest sex (and post-sex) scenes of any movie. Never has a condom been put to such brilliant use on the big screen. As Christian, Bang is a slightly rumpled and incredibly charming lead – with an incredible accent to boot. He and Moss are a delight to watch. There are surprises and twists, and there is much to ponder, not least our own actions and frequent inaction when faced with crisis or conflict.
The square in the film is an artwork based on a real experiment in which a person in the square can ask for help and Christian wonders aloud about the lack of trust in society. We see beggars and meet refugees (with a brilliant cameo by a child actor) and Christian’s reaction to them mirrors that of most of society. Outside a station we see a woman working for a charity asking ‘would you like to save a life?’ and most people ignore her. Our ability to ignore the defenceless and our lack of desire to become involved or engaged comes under Östlund’s astute gaze. He is a fine director and a superb writer, so while this may not be a perfect film, it’s an intelligent and surprising one.