Triangle of Sadness first published by VODzilla.co
With his features Play (2011), Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017), Swedish writer/director Ruben Östlund established himself as a keen observer of human drama and comedy. If the title of his latest, Triangle of Sadness, sounds like a riddle, it is solved very early in the film, as a member of a panel auditioning male fashion models for a new campaign uses the phrase to refer to the un-botoxed wrinkles of skin between the eyebrows – the markers of anxiety, tiredness and frowning on an otherwise perfect face. Yet the title has other references. The film has a three-part, triangular structure; its middle section is set on a ship in dangerous seas, evoking the Bermuda Triangle or Christopher Smith’s oceanic mystery Triangle (2009); and its third leg involves a love triangle. As for the sadness, that is everywhere in this yarn of class iniquity and gender imbalance.
Carl (Harris Dickinson) is a model, and his currency is beauty. He knows how to look good, to present the best face for the moment, to conform to what is wanted and expected of him, to be a blank screen onto which others can project their needs and desires. This is how he makes his living, and he is used to operating on the surface. It may even be all he knows – he is, after all, as dim as he is superficial. Yet when he and his online influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who died shortly after the Triangle of Sadness was made) – a couple who define ‘the beautiful people’ – join a highly exclusive luxury cruise, they look as though they are right where they belong and entirely in place, despite the fact that they alone are on board with complimentary tickets from Yaya’s work, whereas everyone around them is just, well, superrich. “I sell shit,” says Dimitriy (Zlatko Burić), who made his fortune in late-Eighties Russia with a fertiliser monopoly. Another man (Henrik Dorsin), devoid of any discernible personality, creates lucrative codes for apps, while a sweet old British couple (Oliver Ford Davies, Amanda Walker) are retired arms dealers. Carl loves Yaya, and in these opulent surroundings of sun and selfies, he hopes to propose to her – but the weather can suddenly change at sea.
The centrepiece of Triangle of Sadness is the captain’s dinner, a grand affair of formal dress and haute cuisine to which the drunken Captain Thomas himself (Woody Harrelson), who has spent the entire week intoxicated in his cabin, has to be reluctantly dragged. While everyone else is served an elaborate set of dishes, the Captain eats hamburger with French fries (“I’m not a fan of fine dining,” he explains). As a tempest makes the vessel heave and roll, the Captain is almost alone in being able to keep his dinner down. For what goes in must also come out, and here Östlund treats the viewer to a prolonged explosion of vomit and shit. “Everyone’s equal,” read the vapid digital motto at an earlier fashion show whose patrons kept having to make room as guests deemed more important arrived. “We are all equal,” had insisted Dimitry’s wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles) as she ‘commanded’ that all the ship’s crew go for a swim. The principle clearly does not hold on this $259 million yacht where the divisions between wealthy cruisers and servile crew are stark – but as we see the rich and pampered emptying their guts over and over again in graphic multi-coloured detail, Östlund reveals that when it comes down to it, these folk, despite their veneer of superiority and entitlement, are the same as everyone else on the inside (even if it is everyone else who must clean up their mess).
The dinner, of course, is a marker of genre. The word ‘satire’ originally came from a Latin expression (lanx satura) for a dish full of various foods, and like Mark Mylod’s The Menu (2022), Triangle of Sadness serves up a cornucopia of bite-size – and biting – tasters. In fact dinners are featured in all three of the formally headed parts that make up Östlund’s film, with an increasing focus on the labour that goes into their provision and preparation. For the space that all these characters must share, whether on or off the yacht, is a microcosm of society, where Russian capitalist Dimitry and American Marxist Thomas engage in inebriated political dialectics as the ordered universe around them reels into both the chaos of nature and the body’s basic drives – and where, in the end, refined dégustation can lead only to disgust.
“Let’s reverse rôles,” Vera tells Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), as she insists the terrified crew member serving her champagne should also join her in the pool. The revolution that the pampered woman demands is an unreal masquerade, and only momentary. “If today was your last day alive, what would you wish for?”, Vera asks Alicia, her (in fact prophetic) words implying a return to the social order’s status quo on the following day. Vera’s tipsy game is just that, a play-acting fantasy, at her own will and in accordance with rules that she in fact dictates – not unlike Carl’s earlier sexual rôle-play with Yaya where he pretends to be ‘the pool guy’. These wealthy characters are just pretending to be poor for their own amusement, while Alicia risks losing her job merely for playing along as she is in fact being ordered to do. Yet as circumstances violently change and the ship’s Filipino ‘toilet manager’ Abigail (Dolly De Leon), previously kept at the door or at the margins or entirely off screen, suddenly comes to the fore and into her own, power relations radically shift and a genuine social and sexual revolution appears to be unfolding.
The class satire in Triangle of Sadness is vicious and hardly subtle, even as Östlund extends an unusual generosity towards his characters. The rich here are not cartoon villains. They may take the world for granted, and be oblivious to those who facilitate their lives, but they are also funny and capable of emotional range. Rather than target individuals, Östlund is showing us the flotsam and jetsam of a broken system. This is late capitalism writ large as a ship going down – except that what replaces the previous dispensation may turn out to be little more than a rearranging of the deckchairs, as those (newly) at the top still work to preserve what they have at the expense of everyone else. For in this rewrite of William Golding, with Abigail as Lady of the Flies, elevation can never be available to all, and old orders have a way of reinstating themselves.
Summary: Ruben Östlund’s broad, grotesque seaborne satire shows society as a sinking ship, and revolution as a mere rearranging of the deckchairs