Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Ruben Östlund | 2hr 20min

For the staff working aboard the luxury yacht in Triangle of Sadness, there is no choice to offer anything but cheerful hospitality. For the affluent guests, a stuffy air of upper-class pretension must be upheld at all costs, no matter what the stormy ocean throws at them. For Carl, the model who gets free cruise tickets through his influencer girlfriend Yaya, that worry wrinkle which forms between his eyebrows is a blight on an otherwise handsome face, but thankfully it can be fixed with Botox. Swedish director and satirist Ruben Östlund takes the name one casting director colloquially attaches to that damning crease as the title of his film, and though his ensemble of eccentric millionaires and service workers do all they can to suppress the visible discomfort it betrays, their uncontrollable bodily fluids have other plans.

Östlund’s skewering of the ultra-wealthy comes in a year where other films such as Glass Onion and The Menu have covered similar ground, but where those respectively filtered their satire through murder mystery and horror genres, Triangle of Sadness is single-minded in its wry mockery. This is a black comedy in the vein of Luis Buñuel – perhaps not as sharp in its observations or as formally rigorous as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, but still carrying on the same spirit of subversive wit, underscoring the incongruity between the world his characters believe they live in and the reality they can’t escape.

Divided into three chapters and a prologue that each take place in radically different settings, Östlund at times seems to be distracted by the sheer number of possible targets within his purview, introducing compelling characters late in the narrative and letting others disappear for periods of time without much consistency. Remarkably though, the hit-rate of his comedic vignettes is high all throughout, with his actors’ double-edged line deliveries being just as memorable as the riotously lowbrow set piece at the centre of the film.

It is the intersection of two ill-fated decisions made by Captain Thomas Smith and one deluded passenger, Vera, where this luxury cruise descend into hellish chaos. While in a drunken state, Thomas unwisely resolves to host the captain’s dinner on Thursday night when violent storms are forecast. Meanwhile, Vera’s vapid gesture of goodwill that forces a staff member to go swimming is only accepted with an anxious smile, and quickly leads to the overenthusiastic head of staff, Paula, ushering the rest of the crew down the waterslide. It is an absurd sight to see them all lining up for no real purpose, and as the cooks leave the kitchen to join them, we see the beginnings of a catastrophe about to unfold through the seafood they have left sitting in the warm air.

There is something off about the evening as it rolls around, and it isn’t just the raw fish. For virtually the entirety of these fine dining scenes, Östlund slowly rocks his set from side to side, inducing a seasickness on his audience as well as his high-flying characters who balance themselves at skewed angles. Thomas dutifully greets his guests and, like his subordinates, capitulates to their ludicrous demands (better to just assure them the non-existent sails will be cleaned than argue), while wine glasses and bottles roll along the floor. Östlund employs a few solid tracking shots through Triangle of Sadness, but perhaps his greatest comes here as we follow the silver dishes out into the dining hall, where an intermittent banging puts us on edge.

It is absurdly funny to see one woman, right after her first bout of vomiting, try to maintain her composure by washing it down with a glass of champagne. Funnier still is the drunk Russian oligarch, Dimitry, breaking into the captain’s cockpit during the confusion and mischievously announcing over the loudspeaker that the ship is sinking. Each time we are convinced that this cruise has hit rock bottom, Östlund torments his characters with another horrific development worse than the last, like a Gaspar Noé thriller veering hard into dark comedy. Even when we think it is finally over, it isn’t, and Triangle of Sadness suddenly launches into a final act which turns the power hierarchy of the service industry on its head.

How feeble Dimitry’s own capitalistic convictions must be for him to start spouting Marxist quotes the moment he is the one at the bottom of the ladder, especially when it was only the night before that he was obnoxiously battling the captain’s socialist musings with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher soundbites. So too does Abigail, the ship’s toilet manager, become a tyrannical dictator when the opportunity presents itself, choosing to domesticate the men and give special treatment to the women. Up to this point she has not played a particularly significant role, but Östlund has still been sure to underscore the disparity between Paula’s cheery, customer-facing staff above deck, and Abigail’s non-white labourers down below, thanklessly cleaning up the passengers’ vomit and overflowing toilets.

Though Carl and Yaya’s insecure relationship fades into the background through the middle of the film, their maddening disputes over money, feminism, and fidelity are eventually brought back towards its end. They are not as wealthy as their fellow holidaymakers, but in public they still confidently assert themselves as a young, attractive couple pretending they can pay for the opulence surrounding them. Despite being gluten intolerant, Yaya will snap photos with a forkful of pasta for her Instagram followers, while in the cramped backseat of a taxi Östlund frantically swings his camera between both sides of their superficial argument, as if watching a tennis match in close-up. Of all the self-conceited fools who populate Triangle of Sadness, it is not the rich, but those who pretend to be rich who most deserve our pity and scorn. It is ultimately on the lonely shores of their own vanity where these image-obsessed men and women dig their graves, falling to the natural, violent whims of a world that simply can’t be bought.

Triangle of Sadness is currently playing in theatres.


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