In his three-act satirical drama, the Swedish filmmaker charms the very people he seeks to jeer
What do the fashion industry, a luxury cruise, and a deserted island have in common? To answer that question, I hauled my ass to Queens to see Ruben Östlund’s newest satirical, scatological coup de grâce, Triangle of Sadness.
I think Östlund just gets it—it, being the ability to charm the very people he seeks to jeer. In a room full of people (myself included) who bought overpriced tickets to a movie that will be playing for half the price in about two weeks, he managed to bring an entire audience, guilty of his capitalistic pasquinade, to belly laughs while simultaneously laughing at us. That is cinema.
It might seem illicit to use a $13 million budget to ridicule the very foundation (capitalism, of course) and type of person (the bourgeoisie) that are (probably) funding your whole project. But Östlund is a tightrope walker of cinema, riding the line between anthropology and cultural criticism with perfect balance.
Divided into three parts, his film is enabled by way of the fashion industry. Within the confines of a casting-call full of shirtless, chiseled male models, we follow a giddy “contestant” as he flounces around the room with a VHS camera. He lands on fellow model, Carl (Harris Dickinson), and proceeds to quiz him on the nature of the casting. It is in this sequence that a Balenciaga “look” and an H&M “look” are distinguished from one another by way of posing: Balenciaga facially articulated as “grumpy” (exclusively elite and unaffordable) versus H&M, its inclusiveness (and repugnant affordability) embodied by a toothy, forced smile.
“While Ӧstlund approaches the boundless stupidity of fashion with a merciless lens, I think he just wanted to sneer for the sake of sneering.”
Ӧstlund’s radical will doesn’t stop there, but instead makes its way to the spectacle of the fashion show. Paparazzis swarm while models prance down a runway backdropped by fleeting, electronic emblems: “EQUALITY” and “CYNICISM MASQUERADING AS OPTIMISM.” The scene that methodically precedes this one depicts a handful of people, who assumedly aren’t “important” enough, being uprooted from their seats—Carl being one of them. Ӧstlund loves a visual paradox.
While Ӧstlund approaches the boundless stupidity of fashion with a merciless lens, I think he just wanted to sneer for the sake of sneering. In other words, if the fashion industry is a pile of dirt—an ant mound, per se—Ӧstlund is the twerp that steps on it for attention. He gets a kick out of pissing off an ecosystem, and maybe playing God to a certain degree.
And just when we think it couldn’t get much more humiliating for Carl (Ӧstlund loves humiliating men on-screen), we sit in on a swanky dinner where we’re introduced to his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who tragically passed away this August) and the crumbling edifice of their relationship. Ӧstlund is maniacally interested in what makes a character tick and tumble within insulated settings and situations—so of course, Yaya deliberately avoids the check with blissful indifference, resulting in a prolonged, painful, and hilarious debate on who should foot the bill.
While Ӧstlund’s exposure of the vapidity of the fashion industry is amusing, he excels in his intimate dissection of gender stereotypes and assumptions, as previously seen in Force Majeure (my personal favorite of his). As Carl moots Yaya’s nearly negligible “scheme,” the question of “equality”—first seen on the runway—resurfaces, but now in the context of gender. We are exposed to Carl’s histrionics and his obsession with “fairness”; what ensues is a multi-course analysis of the heterosexual, hegemonic relationship.
But rather than spending more energy beating the dead horse of gender roles, Ӧstlund follows the two specimens into the film’s second chapter, which takes place on the ultimate microcosm: a luxury cruise. Ӧstlund continues to use scenes as social experiments, as he traps the audience between the ranks of the cruise staff and its respective guests—a sanctimonious selection of daft aristocrats, insipid grenade-manufacturers, and Russian oligarchs—all of whom embody extremely entertaining, yet shallow caricatures.
“Östlund is a tightrope walker of cinema, riding the line between anthropology and cultural criticism with perfect balance.”
Obscene interactions come to a head at the highly anticipated “Captain’s Dinner,” hosted by the boat’s drunken, vexed captain, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson). As luxurious (yet functionally inedible) dishes are served, a storm hits and the dinner starts to unravel. The guests sweat and struggle to maintain their cool exteriors, downing champagne as if it were Pepto-Bismol, resulting in unavoidable nausea and motion-sickness.
There’s something truly magical about how the bourgeoisie vow to protect their precious, gold-dipped veneers of pride—and in doing so, Ӧstlund subjects them to the ultimate humiliation: an indelicate montage of violent vomiting and torrential diarrhea. As excrement litters the boat’s deck, Captain Smith and his newfound Russian accomplice, Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) narrate the less-than-fortunate circumstances from the ship’s overhead speakers, as if the voice of God were reigning down on his morally-corrupt pocket society.
It’s amid this maniacal monologue, of the Captain and Dimitry, that we hear Ӧstlund’s voice shining through. He tests the forced relationship between the rich and the crew, reshuffling the “ranks” in a survival-of-the-fittest situation. In a setting where capital was postured as perfunctory power, Ӧstlund reinforces human nature—capital will now be measured as the will to survive.
Power to the proletariat finally takes form in the film’s third and final act, which occurs on a deserted island. It’s here that we’re introduced to Abigail (Dolly de Leon), one of the below-deck workers, who was undermined by the staff and vacationers alike up until this pivotal point, where practical skills far exceed pocket-depth in terms of importance. This finale elevates Triangle of Sadness far beyond a sardonic depiction of the ultra-rich-in-crisis, in Ӧstlund’s canny understanding of how, in modern society, people of immense privilege think they can buy their way out of a life-or-death scenario. Well, Ӧstlund proves they are not exempt—and one cannot bribe Mother Nature.