The Film Review: Ruben Östlund’s “Triangle of Sadness“
“I sell shit.” One of the funnier lines that repeated gets trucked out in Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning film, “Triangle of Sadness“. Quite possibly, this is an unintended metaphor for what this wild and winning mischievous takedown of the super-rich means and says. It flings itself forward savaging all of those wealthy superficial souls that board this luxury cruise of a film with a vague certainty that works. most of the time, until it doesn’t. “Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am.” That’s the only thing one can say about this quite humorous but heavily uneven film that delivers, but without any subtlety, to aim its judgement on the super-rich men and women who are at the core of this film. Ground breaking? No, but funny and witty? Certainly. Some of the time.
Split up into three parts, with the first being the most satisfying, “Triangle of Sadness” sets sail way before we even get a glimpse of the “motorized vessel” where the central theme will be unpacked. A television crew is at a model casting, asking questions of the young bare-chested men who are waiting to be seen for a campaign of some sort. The crew play silly and funny, finally focusing in on a young, very handsome male model named Carl, played beautifully by the compelling Harris Dickinson (“Beach Rats“). It’s all fun flipping back and forth until he gets called in, and gets skewered by a comment about his “triangle of sadness” which might require some botox to eliminate. It’s a complex scene to witness, where a man of such beauty is basically told he has outlived his profession.
Moments later, he sits with his model and Instagram influencer girlfriend, Yaya, played devilishly well by the late Charlbi Dean (“Don’t Sleep“), at a very high end restaurant, feeling the weight of what just happened, but not voicing anything about it. The tension is thick as the check gets placed on the table and ignored by Yaya. She makes far more money than Carl, but within those flipped gender imbalances a fight is brewing, and gets played out quite magnificently from table to hotel room. The writing is intense and fascinating, creating something akin to its own intimate independent short film-lifeboat waiting on the deck of a much larger doomed ship. It feels like a good set-up for what is to follow, and although it helps with knowing the foundations of this relationship, a lot of what we learn about these two never really feels all that required later on. It’s worth it, because it’s quite compelling, but is it really, overall?
Östlund next takes us to the deck of this luxury yacht where the ultimate ravaging is set to take place. It’s obvious that the rich are going to be skewered and destroyed, in the same way he took to task the complications of male egos in “Force Majeure” and the pretensions of the art world in “The Square“. Two films I unfortunately never saw, but need to. The set up is compelling though in “Triangle of Sadness“, as this scathing no-holds-barred takedown of the boorish super-rich casts its eyes on those who are not. The chief steward, played intensely by Vicky Berling (“Forbrydelsen“) delivers a tyrannical speech of about only saying “yes” to everything, in a way that might come back and haunt her. But, the first two passengers we see are that same couple from the Parisian restaurant, uncomfortable seeking comfort beside one another on the deck.
There isn’t a lot of faith and trust with one another inside this couple, as they soon get into a power play over flirting, as Yaya continually snaps pictures of herself for her millions of Instagram followers. She’s annoying as hell, but it is the way of the world, we tell ourselves, and Carl is participating, playing the role of photographer in the most passive and underappreciated kind of way. The two models of the runway and of this dysfunctional romantic bonding find themselves sunbathing and not-eating photographed pasta on this luxury cruise courtesy of all those followers and her pictures. Mainly because they look the part, and not because of any sincere romantic connection, they engage with one another, as well as with all the other passengers on board. They are our unsuspected guides. On the inside, but not entirely.
One by one, through their eyes, we are introduced to the selfish and reality-disconnected souls on this Ship of Fools, and they are an undeniably horrific bunch of boorish billionaires. The Ship of Fools dynamic, based on medieval history and engravings, is the metaphorical reaction to the practice of forcing the insane and unwanted to sail out into the ocean unguided and doomed. Ridding the community of the burdensome misfits, while relieving the community of guilt and shame. In a way this is what Östlund is doing, but in reverse, and guided, somewhat by the crew underneath the deck, to their doom. One can see how the politics of exclusion is at the core of this compelling thesis, presenting another way for the powerful to maintain their position, exerting control over undesirables, but Östlund has a more unique way of “dismissing them to the ocean where the tides determined their fate.” Yet his idea of who the undesirables are unquestionably opposite and different.
We are introduced to, what first appears to be, a lovely elderly couple from England full of charm and love for one another. “Cheers to love,” they say, lifting a glass of expensive champagne up, and it feels good, that is until we start to understand exactly how they made their millions. There is a German woman who has suffered a stroke that has taken away her ability to speak beyond the phrase, “in der Wolken” which, we are told, means “in the clouds.” This conceptualization seems ripe for something unique and interesting to wrap itself up in, but sadly, the idea seems to be a wasted, possibly on-the-cutting-room-floor idea that never takes us anywhere beyond a simple little clue that comes later in the third chapter. There is also a Russian family of three, barely connected to one another even through the smiles. They seem playfully oblivious to the power they hold and can exert on the crew, just for their personal pleasure and self absorption.
“You say no to me?” the wife says to one of the staff, when she orders the confused employee to enjoy the moment, even if it means causing the woman and the crew a tremendous amount of discomfort. It’s a quick waterslide into abstractionism soon after, as the crew are used as playthings for the idle and bored rich, who want to see themselves as much kinder and caring then they are. Östlund sets up these targets with an overly simplified manner, equating rich to bad with broad simple strokes, but for anyone who have found themselves caught up in their inner circle, these caricatures are not that far off the mark. Not really. But beyond the monstrous self-absorbed characters we see before us complaining of dirty non-existent sails, there is the ship’s Captain, played perfectly well by the typecast Woody Harrelson (“Zombieland“) doing what he does best, standing at an off-angle against all who come before him. His crisis is an internal one, brought on by the unseen bottle, yet played out for all on the night of the Captain’s dinner. It’s a night to remember, but not for it’s unmatched elegance of food served, but the punishment nature delivers on all those on-board. The film doesn’t take us where we think it’s going, but the end result is as visually violent and complicated as one can imagine.
This explosive, in so many surprising ways, evening leads us floating onto an island for the third chapter of this increasingly fascinating and bizarre film, where roles and actions are reversed, yet power dynamics are played out in similar fashion. Money has no say on that island, we believe, even as those who survived try their best to hold onto old patterns of persuasion. The ship’s toilet cleaner, Abigail, played powerfully by Dolly De Leon (“Verdict“) discovers her new position and uses it as obviously as those others once did. The currency and what is desired has changed, but the heartlessness and selfish manipulations of the commands have remained the same.
Yet for some reason, the third chapter loses some of the qualities that the first two sections were teasing out. Of course we want the unsympathetic rich and powerful punished and ultimately humiliated by the toilet cleaning lady, who can fish and make fires, but the framework falters quickly, and starts to meander off into a sexual jungle of existence, playing with a complicated power dynamic as the film inches towards its finale. Östlund doesn’t seem to know how to delicately keep up the rhythm of his ridiculing, tripping over the island’s landscape while he makes his way to the conclusion. The message is clear, as the powerful try their hardest to remain in the hands of those who hold it, with the lesser souls being used for the commodities they hold on to and that are useful in the moment. Power does corrupt, but is the ending smart enough to make us wonder, or just shake our collective heads? The running to the end delighted me, but was it satisfying enough to make its long running time worth it? I’ll let you decide where that rock falls. But I say, “yes,” just like I was told to.