The outrageous, mind-bending Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure and The Square) presents an informal treatise on power constructs in his immensely sardonic, over-the-top, perfectly edited Triangle of Sadness. Deftly, Östlund presents an interesting sequence, holds our attention, then gyrates away on another tangent. Tension, shock and awkwardness that comes from uncertainty and being whipped off-balance characterize this filmmaker’s modus operandi. Unease, uncertainty and laughter keep us entertained on the playground of his riotous satire with its searing message.
The filmmaker provides an extraordinary and macabre funhouse where no rules apply. Indeed, reversals turn on a dime. Also, mythic themes pop up and unravel our complacency. Östlund enjoys having his audience on. Invariably, his situations and characters, deeply stained, cause us to feast on our own hypocrisy. As we laugh, we project our foibles onto his characters. But we enjoy the wild ride he makes us take.
Mischievously Östlund reveals that all human nature has at its core the same rotted substance. Regardless of how elite the class, how gorgeous the outer shell, how “in control” and staid people appear to be, humanity’s a mess.
‘Triangle of Sadness’ – an Industry term
The title references a physical imperfection – the cosmetic-industry term “triangle of sadness,” alluding to the wrinkles between the eyebrows. Östlund strikes us with the phrase during the opening sequence of the film. Signifying the important theme of physical perfection and the sanctity of beauty, that triangle metaphorically haunts the characters throughout. In every sequence wrinkles eventually appear on the surface of a once-perfect situation. Afterward, problems, storms, trauma and insidious, terrible events rain down.
As usual Östlund begins his film with energy. Backstage at a casting call, we note a documentary crew. Barking orders and questions, assistants interview gorgeous, camera-beautiful men about their career choices. We learn that the profession pays women models much more. Put through their paces, the hunky auditioners alternate their facial expressions. First, assistants tell them to think “H&M ad”: boyish grin, fun-loving, happy. Then assistants tell them to change their expression for an upscale-brand image like Dolce & Gabbana. The hotties change their facial expressions to a remote and solemn stare. At some point as they rapidly alternate expressions, the assistant mentions their “triangle of sadness.”
Ridiculing classism and elitism
In this hysterical sequence the filmmaker exposes the elitism built into the culture through subliminal images that promote brands. Rich equals remote and unflappable. And middle class equals accessible, friendly, economical. When we wear the upscale brands, and manifest the serious look, we don wealth. The filmmaker ridicules this foundation of corporations’ overpricing and profiteering.
Immediately, the film preps us for a subtle exposé of wealth, privilege, beauty. It pits them against the middle class struggle. By any means necessary they wrangle to gain the enviable elites’ “heavenly” status, power, money. Meanwhile, the concepts of worth and value of life, decency, generosity, wholeness, kindness fly out the window. The “eternal verities” of ancient times, the moral and human values brought by insight, meditation and reflection don’t show in their expressions. Not when money, power, privilege hold sway. Various players, especially in the cruise portion of the film, are pawns of corporate commercialism and conspiring victims of their own demise.
Perfect looks and what’s underneath
After the humiliating casting call, protagonist Carl (Harris Dickinson) whom we just watched embarrass himself sits in a luxury restaurant, looking upscale as he and his female physical equal, the lovely Yaya (Charlbi Dean), finish dinner. This perfect couple shine with superiority in the shot. Uplifted by great genes, they have the discipline to maintain and enhance perfection.
Östlund shows that beauty equals wealth and status. And gorgeousness opens the doors to privilege with its privilege. However, once Carl and Yaya open their mouths, another hysterical truth emerges. If pretty is surface, ungraciousness goes clear to the bone and hints at ugliness of the soul.
As the couple nitpicks about who should pay the check, showing gender stereotypes and power constructs, their clever dialogue hits the mark. The film uses the fact of Yaya making more than Carl as a gender power dig. Though she offered to pay the day before, she changed her mind because the alpha male should pay.
Thus the wrinkle appears. Their ugly quarrel destroys the image of their picture-perfect looks and happiness we saw at the top of the scene. With incredibly witty dialogue, the film strips bare cultural male insecurities, fake etiquette, the destructiveness of ancient folkways and much more.
Then with a striking jump cut, we arrive with the stunning Carl and Yaya on a luxury cruise. Perhaps their looks have gained them a monetary reward after all. They’ve been invited to enhance the landscape of the cruise along with the other elite classy appointments. Also, Yaya, an influencer, got the cruise as a free perk, a lucky benefit. How this turns out defies one’s imagination beyond definitions of wild and crazy.
Zany surprises and hilarity
As they awkwardly move among the filthy rich, they eventually hang with a Russian fertilizer oligarch, an arms manufacturer and an oil baron, all seniors. Dimitry (Zlatko Burić gives an LOL performance) introduces himself with the phrase, “I sell s$it.” After a huge pause, he clarifies, “Fertilizer.”
Occasionally, we note shots of the crew who make the ship sparkle and satisfy the passengers’ every teeny whim. Even Carl’s insecurity takes precedence when he complains that a crew member has leered at Yaya. The first mate fires the crewman. A launch comes a few hours later to remove him. Yes, these rich and beautiful folk rule the little people. The microcosm of the cruise reflects the macrocosm of global reality, Östlund suggests. But remember, the wrinkles do exist.
Passenger requests land from extreme to extreme. In fact Dimitry’s partner suggests the crew take a break in a mawkish attempt at being egalitarian. Of course, they do, for a bit, leaving no one at the helm of the luxury yacht. When the captain (an intentionally negligent and drunk Woody Harrelson) refuses to join them for the break, we note another wrinkle. The smooth surface of the ocean can turn on his orders which suffer delays as he puts off his assistants.
The captain: A twist on the message of ‘Triangle of Sadness’
Finally, a momentous decision looms. When will they have the meet-up with the passengers at the Captain’s Dinner? Countering the warnings of his female assistant, the captain suggests the dinner be the evening of the storm warnings. We question if his judgment is related to his drunken state or if something else stirs the captain’s addled brain.
Only after we watch hurling the likes of which made some Cannes Film Festival audience members run down the aisles, do we understand the hurricane sequence. As waiters attempt to serve and passengers’sstomachs upheave with the storm’s punches, unfazed and calm the captain and Dimitry argue.
Riotously, Östlund anchors the Marxist captain against Reagan fanatic Dimitry in drunken ideological rantings. Intermixing shots of overflowing toilets, passengers projectile vomiting, red-eyed Harrelson shouts over a roaring soundtrack. Burić rants back. We appreciate the brilliant, dark cinematic ironies. This crazy joyride of the elite’s comeuppance, we didn’t bargain for. Genius.
The storm is just the beginning
And that’s just the end of the storm-wrinkled sequence. Another top of the roller coaster twists in the aftermath. As pirates attempt to take over the yacht, a grenade explodes in the hand of the wife of the filthy rich arms merchant. In the next jarring sequence, we see the few survivors washing up on a deserted island.
Of course, the beautiful, “lucky” protagonists make it. But who doesn’t survive the disaster? What values come to the fore? Beauty and wealth can’t provide food, water and heat. In this last segment, the power dynamic shifts to those who have the skills, hearkening to a time before electricity. Who emerges as the kingpin? With gobsmacking irony, the individual Östlund selects to rule remains the best and most hilarious gut punch of Triangle of Sadness. And those LOL punches keep on coming until the last frame.
Having won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, The Triangle of Sadness deserves its accolades for its current, ferocious satire, sterling editing, superb cinematic shot composition and design. Giving a nod to the genius of Luis Buñuel and Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away, this is a must-see for Östlund’s invaluable commentary on our time. A NEON release in theaters now.