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Triangle of Sadness

After 'The Square', Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund picked up a second Palme d'Or for this scathing satire of privilege and prestige.
By Sarah Ward
December 16, 2022
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By Sarah Ward
December 16, 2022
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Beware the luxurious worlds of Ruben Östlund's films. Beware any feelings of ease, opulence or awe that spring at ski resorts, in art museums, within the fashion industry or on high-end holidays, too. The Swedish filmmaker isn't interested in keeping his characters comfortable regardless of their lavish surroundings, and he isn't keen on ensuring his viewers remain relaxed, either, no matter how cushy their cinema chairs. To watch the writer/director's movies is to observe his on-screen figures responding to chaos flung their way, which is true of all features. That said, to watch here is to actively feel a reaction. It's virtually impossible not to experience a cascade of emotions as an Östlund-penned and -helmed picture flickers, and sometimes it's just as difficult to avoid a physical response. With his latest, Triangle of Sadness, the titular space between your eyebrows definitely gets a workout.

Other than that last part, all of the above proved true of 2014's phenomenal Force Majeure, which wasn't Östlund's first or even second or third feature, but served up as clever and cringe-inducing a portrait of marriage and masculinity as the 21st century has provided (just forget Downhill, the American remake he had nothing to do with). Then, with dropped jaws over a divisive piece of art within a divisive piece of art, it was accurate of 2018's The Square, the writer/director's first Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or-recipient, too. And, earning him that same prestigious prize again in 2022 — putting him in rarefied company alongside just eight other twice-winning directors/co-directors, in fact — it's also wholly applicable to Triangle of Sadness. This time, he has modelling, influencers and the super-rich in his sights, all in a movie that keeps doing what Östlund loves: unpacking societal structures and the divides they rely on (and cause).

Make a feature with a shape in its title, score one of the biggest filmmaking awards there is: yes, that's been a nifty formula for Östlund of late. But even if he directs a flick called something like Hexagonal Dreaming in the future — or anything else with a geometrical bent, for that matter — and that too nabs Cannes' famed top gong, managing to beat Triangle of Sadness' vomit sequence is highly unlikely. For a director who enjoys cutting the privileged and supposedly prestigious down to size without opting for simplistic judgements, getting the uber-wealthy spewing their guts up on a yacht getaway is one helluva leveller. Money can't buy you a solution to basic bodily functions when food poisoning and seasickness strike, and doesn't this scathingly entertaining flick revel in that notion at its most gleefully gross.

To remind audiences that responding to films and life alike is an involuntary reflex, Östlund shows a swag of his characters doing just that — to existence, and to a choppy cruise also populated by arms dealers and literal shit salesmen. It makes for unforgettable cinema, but it's also just one part of Triangle of Sadness and its sublimely shot unpacking of affluence, entitlement, social hierarchies and beauty as currency. Appearing to be coasting through perfection is an ongoing quest for Carl (Harris Dickinson, See How They Run) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, Black Lightning), models-slash-influencers and the movie's focal point. From the outset, however, including across an opening third set on dry land and a final act that gets stranded and sandy, nothing is straightforward. Eating the rich is easy and delicious, not to mention a major on-screen trend of late (see: Parasite, Succession, The White Lotus, Knives Out and Glass Onion, just to name a few), but Östlund has much to chew.

When Carl is first introduced, he's one among a sea of jobbing male models, all attempting to ply their handsomeness for a paycheque. In a Zoolander-esque moment, Triangle of Sadness points out the fashion world's inbuilt sense of class as the casting call's attendees are asked to grin like they're posing for an affordable brand, then grimace like they're in ads for an expensive line — and no, this isn't a subtle picture. Cash is an ongoing point of contention for Carl anyway, given he earns less than Yaya as male models tend to yet still largely picks up the bill for their dinners. When the duo take to the ocean to sip champagne, loll about by the pool and ignore the hardworking crew surrounded by the one-percent, he's still working the requisite angles. Meanwhile, Yaya is snapping them, recording everything for Instagram from every vantage possible.

Going on vacation in an Östlund film isn't a great idea. On this holiday, under the drunken captain's (Woody Harrelson, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) watch, sunbaking on the deck gives way to those projectile technicolour yawns — and other evacuations — then to an unexpected destination. Onboard the yacht, the chasms between the haves and have nots are as glaring as the sunny weather, but that setup isn't sustainable when gale-force winds and pirates get in the way. Only Filipino toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon, Folklore) knows how to catch fish, clean and cook them, and build a fire, after all, but Carl and Yaya's post-cruise life isn't an egalitarian wonderland. A big bank balance means nothing but beauty still means plenty — and the way that Östlund satirically carves into the resulting mayhem is equally hilarious and and astute, even when his film is both obvious and overt.

There's nothing restrained about excess as its zenith — "everyone's equal," the boat's staff are ignorantly told when a guest flat-out forces them to go swimming on a shift — and there needn't be about scorching interrogations of all that overindulgence. Östlund is both blunt and oh-so-sharp, and broad yet targeted; Triangle of Sadness does love its contradictions, after all, including an American Marxist and Russian capitalist trading quotes and worldviews, the contrast between all things shiny and bodily fluid-fuelled sequences, and the perception-versus-reality of Carl and Yaya's existence across each of the picture's three sections. The game cast are up to the seesawing challenge, especially the formidable De Leon as someone even the film itself overlooks to begin with, Dickinson as the idealistic but practical Carl, and the late Dean as the enterprising yet oblivious Yaya. Having his regular cinematographer Fredrik Wenzel point a static camera their way and wait for statement-making awkwardness to gush seems like a natural decision, and it is, but Östlund remains masterful at putting the right pieces in place.

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