This year’s competition slate features new work by two filmmakers last seen at Cannes with award-winning entries in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Two years after White God, Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó is back with Jupiter’s Moon, a supernatural thriller that tackles Europe’s refugee crisis. Three years have elapsed since Ruben Östlund’s breakthrough domestic drama Force Majeure; the Swedish filmmaker’s follow-up, The Square, shows that it was worth the wait.
“Nobody looks up anymore,” muses a character in Jupiter’s Moon. If they did, they would see a spectacular sight, Aryan (Zsombor Jéger), a Syrian refugee, levitating above the rooftops of Budapest. While crossing the Serbian border with his father, Aryan is shot by the corrupt police officer Laszlo (the menacing György Cserhalmi, Hungary’s Harvey Keitel). Despite the exit wounds through his vital organs – or perhaps because of them – Ayran lives and develops gravity-defying powers that are exploited by Stern, an opportunistic doctor who inhabits the film’s moral gray zone. In a world where charity and sympathy are in short order, Stern assists at a refugee camp, even if he manages to enrich himself in the process through bribery. Having discovered the miraculous Aryan, Stern sends the reluctant, frightened refugee to terminal patients in order to provide them a miraculous coup de grâce. Stern cashes in on his sidekick’s angelic abilities, promising Aryan to use the money to buy him papers on the black market (the asking price is 2 million florints, roughly $6500).
The film has much in common with White Dog, another action-packed and consistently gripping film that mixed elements of cinéma verité with magical realism. In that earlier film, the dogs of Budapest wreak havoc on the nocturnal city. Jupiter’s Moon thrust us into its fantastical story with a torn-from-the-headlines urgency. The early scenes, set at the border crossing and in the refugee camp, are reminiscent of Children of Men (2006) in their startling, unrelenting intensity. And while the film’s last third swerves into shoot-’em-up territory, with a terrorist bombing on the Budapest subway, a high-octane car chase and a Luc Besson-style showdown in a luxury hotel, the startling novelty of the film’s premise, and the breathtaking scenes – especially the early ones – of Aryan demonstrating his powers hold the film aloft. Mundruczó’s camera (cinematography by Marcell Rév) somersaults and careens to Aryan’s gravity-defying dances, with a skillful choreography of live action and CGI that invites comparisons with Birdman. Stern and Ayran’s visit to an embittered skinhead yields the film’s most graceful and heart-stopping sequence: a minutes-long single shot of Ayran literally turning the patient’s squalid apartment upside-down, with the apoplectic skinhead hurtling to the ceiling along with his worldly possessions. For a few minutes, the film achieves its miracle.
Where to begin talking about The Square, Ruben Östlund’s terrifically complex follow-up to Force Majeure? Maybe at the beginning. “HE’S GOING TO KILL ME!” screams a woman running through a crowded street in Stockholm. Christian (Claes Bang), an elegant museum curator in his 40s, responds to the cries for help and keeps the woman’s pursuer at bay. Continuing on his way to work, he pats down his pockets and realizes his wallet and phone are missing.
That well-orchestrated theft functions as the The Square‘s MacGuffin, with Christian’s improvised attempts at retrieving what was stolen setting the film’s main conflicts in motion. Christian works at a sleek contemporary art museum inside a former royal palace, currently exhibiting an installation with piles of gravel called “You Have Nothing” and a video of a Russian performance artist (Terry Notary) making monkey-like expressions at the camera. We see these “artworks” repeatedly and both come to play a critical role in the film.
Christian’s single-minded quest to get his phone and wallet back distracts him from a couple of young PR wizards the museum has hired to promote their new upcoming exhibit, “The Square,” an installation about how much trust people can expect from their fellow citizens. The marketers feel a show about the social contract is going to be a hard sell and convince the museum – with Christian’s implicit approval, although he’s so interested in restitution that he can’t be bothered to pay attention – to go along with their shock-and-awe tactics.
When the exhibit trailer, featuring a small beggar girl and a kitten being blown to smithereens, goes viral, Christian lands in hot water. But by this point, far more is on the line than his job. He has revealed his callous entitledness to his young daughters and an American journalist he casually sleeps with (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss in a memorably stubborn cameo) and has physically assaulted a little boy. The exhibit that lends the film its title seeks to carve out a safe zone where vulnerability and caring can be shown and reciprocated. Force Majeure was a character study of one man’s cowardice and the effects on his domestic life. Social commentary and art-world satire in one, The Square imparts a bleak message about the heartlessness of a society where everyone acts in his own best interest. Nowhere do the two poles of the film – the art satire and the social allegory – meet more forcefully than during a climax scene where Notary, playing the Russian artist, terrorizes a formal dinner in his apeman persona (the American actor works an an animal movement coach for big Hollywood productions, including, most-recently, Kong: Skull Island). His incrementally menacing performance brings out his well-heeled audiences’ most primal instincts of fear and violence. In a festival year that pushes social and political issues to the fore with uncommon urgency, The Square is the most muscular installment yet.