Christian (Claes Bang), the head curator of a Swedish modern art museum, faces a dilemma: he must find a way to promote a coming “exhibit” — no more or less than a 4×4 meter empty square in front of the museum intended as a “sanctuary of trust and caring,” a place into which anyone can step and cry for help. That of course would suggest that modern day Stockholm, a place of affluence and civility, is instead adrift of civil society, if not afoul of it, which is precisely writer-director Ruben Östlund’s intention.
In 150-minutes of brilliant and belabored filmmaking, he portrays Christian as the near-hapless victim of a society that is neither trustful nor caring, always ready explode, and too often unable to fathom what two young marketing gurus appropriately slough off as “moral courage and all that stuff.” A promotional video made by the duo will be Christian’s final undoing, but well before that he’s undermined at every turn by thieves who steal his wallet, prompting absurdist revenge; by an oddball American journalist with a pet chimpanzee who demands greater sexual accountability after his casual seduction; by a another promotional stunt-gone bad, a majestically pulled off scene in which a man playing an ape in a ballroom crowd (Terry Notary) refuses to abandon his feral character when told enough is enough. The result is “2001”-styled primitive conflict, which Östlund also views in more subtle ways, parading a slew of Stockholm beggars not so much to make a liberal point but to further blur his bleakly satirical line between “us” and “them.” Social media comes in for lampooning, as does the overly wordy elitism of modern art.
Though Östlund wields his silver hammer too often, using musical exclamation points to help stab home “truth,” his Jungle Book send-up of humans is an ambitious and crisply intelligent undertaking. Christian is basically a good guy bewildered by the too much-ness around him, the madness of viral video culture included. “If you place an object in a museum,” Christian asks an interviewer rhetorically, “does that make this object a piece of art?” He might also have pondered (dubiously) whether placing creatures with brains on earth makes them human. Awarded the Palm d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.