Triangle of Sadness is a Satire That Skillfully Goes Overboard
Olivia Rutigliano on Ruben Östlund’s New Palme d'Or-Winning Comedy
Those with weak constitutions might want to avoid Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Östlund’s recent Palme d’Or-winning dark comedy. The film is an undeniable corker, an intrepid satire that twists its knives into its subjects so much that the whole enterprise might very well have gobsmacked Jonathan Swift. Triangle of Sadness’s modest proposal is a luxury cruise voyage gone horribly wrong and a shipwreck that overturns various social hierarchies.
But the film isn’t simply a parodic thought experiment in how the other halves live—it is a ferocious takedown of wealth, privilege, and high society, sending its numerous embodiers of these concepts through the mill and back again (and by “mill,” I mean “torture chamber”.) All I can say is, if representations of excessive privilege, entitlement, racism, or elitism make you feel queasy, just wait. Just wait.
The story’s protagonists are a young couple on the periphery of the 1% lifestyle. Carl (Harris Dickinson) is a young male model with a decent income (but he speaks with the kind of English accent that suggests a working-class economic background). He is dating Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a posh model/Instagram influencer whose looks and popularity garner her a lot of free stuff, including tickets on a luxury cruise. I’m getting ahead of myself—for the first of the film’s three chapters, the film is about their relationship, and specifically how they have different approaches to money and what that means in their partnership. Carl is neurotically frugal, while Yaya expects not to have to pay for things at all, and for a bit, Carl is the closest thing we get to an everyman, an outsider in the showy, affluent world in which they live.
But then the film takes to the high seas and expands its scope. On a luxury cruise, Carl and Yaya intermingle with the richest of the rich—Russian fertilizer tycoons, Scandinavian app developers, English weapons manufacturers. A crew of white-gloved, overly-polite, beautiful and mostly blonde-haired orderlies, led by the customer-service-obsessed Paula (Vicki Berlin), toady about them day and night, always smiling and promising to grant their every last wish.
But the social rungs of the yacht do not stop here; there is an entire crew of cleaning workers and porters (all People of Color) who spend their time below deck, ignored by their above-deck coworkers and dismissed by the passengers. Östlund wrote and directed the film, and his script is clever from the get-go, but it becomes especially insightful for noting the depths and different categories of oppression that percolate through the ship’s ranks according to class and race.Triangle of Sadness is a riveting, innovative film, with rich character development and countless questions about our longstanding world order and the trappings of modern life.
The complete cluelessness and narcissism of these rich travelers is represented, to various degrees of grotesqueness and stupidity, as the cruise sets out on its voyage. Right away, it’s clear that the rules of the ship don’t apply to anyone who can afford to ride it; with a crew afraid of displeasing them and unable to put them in their places, they have the run of the vessel. Although it’s not clear exactly what, the film is notably building to something. It seems for a while that, unchecked, these out-of-touch aristos are going to undermine the voyage in some capacity. There is palpable tension woven through the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise.
There is one other person on board the ship, the captain (Woody Harrelson), who spends most of his time in his room because he cannot stomach being around these supercilious snobs. The night he finally emerges for his mandatory obligation, a “Captain’s Dinner,” is when the ship gets caught in a terrible storm and everyone eating the menu of squishy, pretentious spoiled seafood is felled by seasickness and food poisoning. That’s when shit finally hits the fan. Literally.
To say that Triangle of Sadness is unafraid of the scatological is the understatement of the century. It holds firm to an elaborate plan of punishment for these terrible passengers, putting them through circumstances as physically disgusting as they are, socially, economically, and philosophically. (We’re talking torrents of excrement, of several varieties and consistencies.) (Your viewing of Triangle of Sadness is not the time to use your rewards credit and get that free popcorn; it will be a waste, I promise you.)
The film presents itself in a three-act structure: as I mentioned briefly before, there are three chapters (presumably, the titular “triangle of sadness”), representing different levels of pecuniary inequality and capitalistic brutality. The film’s explosive second chapter is not even adequate preparation for the heartburn of the film’s third chapter, in which a handful of the ship’s passengers wind up shipwrecked on an island and have to build their own society on the beach. Viewers familiar with Östlund’s oeuvre will recognize this Lord of the Flies-esque investment—seeing what people are actually capable of doing once the comforts of society are stripped away. (The French title is Sans Filtre. Oui, in more ways than one.)
Even considering all the times you might find it necessary to cover your eyes (or your mouth),Triangle of Sadness is a riveting, innovative film, with rich character development and countless questions about our longstanding world order and the trappings of modern life. It is not only about human nature; it is also specifically about structures that preserve inequality and scaffold quality of life.
I don’t assume it’s easy to perform in a movie like this, either—a lot is asked of the actors, especially one in particular, the German stage actress (and actual princess) Sunnyi Melles, who plays an especially oblivious rich idiot and suffers the most horrifying fate of anyone in a scene that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
But all the performances are vigorous and complex, navigating a tremendous amount of growth (or regression) in finite windows. It turns out that there are more main characters than meets the eye, and some of them don’t get their time to shine until much later. Hats off to Dolly De Leon, who plays a cleaning lady named Abigail who is virtually unseen until the third chapter, for delivering a fabulously nuanced performance in one-third the amount of time as some of the other actors get.
The film’s visuals are stunning—perhaps the filmmakers were determined to put Instagram photography in its place, which they do. The colors and lighting are crisp and vivid and the outdoor vistas are majestic. This is a film which must constantly provide gorgeous, even imagery so that it can get away with a few sequences of unsightly content.
This is Östlund’s first English-language film, but not his first Palme d’Or. He is a deft, canny director, and the film’s cohesiveness is a testament to this. This is a script whose storyline could easily feel fragmented or disconnected and many of whose scenes could feel queasy to the point of distraction and disorientation. Unlike the toilets on the super-yacht, the film keeps its lid on tightly, packaging a startling, creative film that might occasionally be hard to stomach but is still enjoyable to swallow.