Triangle of Sadness picks out the holes in our society with references to Marxism, influencer culture and a shit “load of shit”.
The opening of Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness grabs your attention with a gaze into the superficial world of high fashion during a male model casting.
A caricature-like documentary interviewer speaks to the models, revelling in a mockery of the shallow elitism of the industry. This is where we meet Carl (Harris Dickinson), a charming, slightly immature and jealous twenty-something-year-old model who is passively advised to get botox after a casting judge points out his ‘triangle of sadness —a V-shaped stressed induced crease you apparently get between your eyebrows at a certain age. The realisation that his prime is nearing expiration triggers an outburst of insecure rantings about money and gender roles, bared onto his influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean)—an ambitious and self admittedly “sometimes manipulative” partner at times. Their argument, which Carl insists “isn’t about money” but ignites after a squabble over who should pay the restaurant bill, results in Yaya (the higher-earning one) bringing Carl on an all-expenses-paid for luxury cruise, courtesy of one of her brand partnerships. This gesture of apology is received as yet another blow to Carl’s ego.
On this cruise Östlund continues to pick apart egos and behaviours, introducing us to a slew of even more entitled and disgustingly rich characters. Onboard, there’s Ronald Reagan loving, Russian oligarch Dimitri (Zlatko Burić); British couple and creators of the hand grenade Winston and Clementine; alcoholic and self-proclaimed “unworthy Marxist” and captain of the ship (Woody Harrelson); and power-hungry manager of the cruise and suck-up Paula (Vicky Berlin). Östlund toys with these privileged characters who get their highs from demanding the impossible from hospitality workers. The audience is provided with a glimpse into the lives of the elite that are so far from grounded they may as well be “in den Wolken,” or “in the clouds”—a phrase repeated throughout the film by a German woman who suffered from a stroke.
Mirroring the high-level maintenance of getting the “perfect Insta pic”, each scene took an average of 23 takes, and the precision reflects in Director of Photography Fredrik Wenzel’s crisp and clean cinematography. The film captures the near-perfect aesthetic of an influencer’s Instagram with meticulous framing of fine dining props, artificial plants and a brightly saturated colour palette of ocean blue and minimalist creams and beiges.
Like his previous The Square and Force Majeure, Östlund forces his characters to confront a natural disaster where socially constructed status or money can’t be weaponised as a defence or bargained with. The third act of Triangle of Sadness leaves Carl and Yaya, Dimitri, Paula, the German woman, the ship’s toilet manager Abigail (Dolly De Leon) and a below the deck worker (Jean-Christophe Folly), who Dimitri accuses of being a pirate because he’s black, stranded on a desert island, stripped from the materialism that makes up their identities and self-worth.
This part of the film plays out like a sociological experiment similar to the reality TV show Bear Grylls the island, where social hierarchies are dismantled, and the group’s alpha is elected on survival skills rather than currency. Using his Rolex watch, Dimitri pitifully but humorously tries to bargain with Abigail, the strongest of the group on the island but least respected on the ship, but miserably fails. The commentary and interactions between characters of different social classes may be a bit loud and on the nose. It’s a funny and relevant representation of the meaningless value we have ascribed to material things.
The final act spirals into a Love Island-esque exchange of gossip, jealousy and an unexpected love triangle but, unfortunately, doesn’t fulfil its potential. Whilst the film’s commentary on society and commentary is transparent and well-executed, its exploration into the characters’ psychology and why humans behave in specific ways is scratched at but ultimately falls two-dimensional.
Despite an underwhelming ending, Triangle of Sadness is both hilarious and meta-aware of the topics it’s critiquing. Östlund strikes the right balance of absurdist comedy and dark realism that makes the two hours and thirty minutes spent with society’s greediest and most despicable characters time well spent.
Words by Alexandria Slater
This film screened as part of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, find the rest of our coverage here.
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