Movie Review (TIFF 2022): ‘Triangle of Sadness’ Drenches The Rich in Raw Sewage
Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Stars: Thobias Thorwid, Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean
Synopsis: A cruise for the super-rich sinks thus leaving survivors, including a fashion model celebrity couple, trapped on an island.
Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning and laughing-gas-covered Triangle of Sadness might not have the sharpness and insight that his previous features contained, but it entertainingly tackles economic disparity and the “entitlement” of the super-rich by dwelling on poisonous folly and drenching their prerogative in raw sewage.
Swedish filmmaker and curator of darkly comedic mischief cinema, Östlund has always found ways to play with satire and the themes of privilege amidst the super-rich. His cinematic canvas is ambitious, and it has earned him not only critical acclaim but also top festival awards, such as the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize in 2014 for Force Majeure (his best feature to date, in my opinion) and a Palme d’Or win in 2017 for The Square. Östlund exposes human frailty in its many guises, like cowardliness, emasculation, hypocrisy, insincerity, and privilege, by constructing various well-timed and executed comedic setpieces. Sometimes it feels as if his films contain too much fat and feel bloated, but, for the most part, the excess adds an element of surprise and restless folly. He doesn’t want to let his audience rest or feel relaxed as his film is running, upping the comedic ante while exposing people’s weaknesses and idiosyncratic impolitic behavior.
His directorial antics are crafted by the fact that he thinks, as said during his Cannes 2022 press conference, that the “arthouse cinema” being made during his stay in film school was boring. So, he wanted to put the important topics occurring during our day and age into a context that we, the viewers and audience, like to click on. Although one might disagree with his sentiment that the arthouse films being made are monotonous (as there have been plenty of brilliant films that have been made in recent years), his statement towards bringing to a setting in which they would want to spend some time and forcing them within that exquisite (ski resort, art museum, mall, etc) setting to discuss important subject matters. Now, to follow his Cannes top-prize-winning film, the art world satire The Square, Östlund arrives with Triangle of Sadness, which provided him his second straight Palme d’Or, having its North American premiere at this year’s TIFF.
If you’d thought that his previous 2017 feature lacked any sense of subtlety and had the fitting division between brilliant and baggy, then in his latest, Östlund takes the emergency break altogether – delivering a takedown of the 1% by combining the savvy oddities of Luis Buñuel with slapstick-like comedic set-pieces, gross-out humor, and a not-so-rich yet vastly entertaining subtext. With an almost three-hour runtime, Triangle of Sadness, named after the fashion industry’s expression of the wrinkles between a person’s eyebrows, is divided into three parts: the young lovers in the fashion world, the multi-million-dollar luxury yacht, and the deserted island – all of which end in catastrophic ways, escalating its comedic and narrative absurdity by the minute. For the entirety of the film, you spend time with an array of successful and outlandish rich people, which might seem like an irritable experience. Instead, the film develops into a crude, ostentatious, and sidesplitting rinsing of wealth, self-importance, vanity, and those same human beings who think they are the last coca-cola in the desert, ending as an uproarious jet-black comedic farce that knocks the rich down into their lowest levels imaginable.
Triangle of Sadness begins as a story of romance, showered in satire (of course), where a young model, Carl (Harris Dickinson), and his influencer girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean), are in a money-orientated relationship. Yaya may be in it for the likes on the various social media platforms. Still, Carl is genuinely in love, or so he asserts – as he’s petty, jealous, and dishonest with himself and the newly developing fashion world around him. Yaya’s social media fame lands the couple two tickets on a 250-million dollar luxury yacht, where we meet an array of immensely wealthy characters and crew members that feel as if they came from a malicious version of an Agathe Christie novel. Some of these characters are a Russian capitalist who sells shit (stated multiple times), Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), a Marxist captain and drunk, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), and an elderly couple who made their wealth from the arms trade (grenades included).
During this point, the tables are turned for the first time of many in the narrative. Although the film begins concentrating on Carl and Yaya, its focus shifts to the wealthier people on the yacht. This puts the young couple in the middle of a privileged sandwich, as they are the representation of the “middle-class” amidst the luxurious bunch, even if they are also wealthy themselves. They are outcasts one way or another but still have the gold-plated fortune attached to their backbone. The rest of what happens in Triangle of Sadness shouldn’t be spoiled, as it might ruin the experience for you. All you need to know is what started as a funny kickback (to some point) transforms into a poisonous mad-house of outrageous delights with a laughing gas haze. It takes its time before it reaches its crudeness, but it is sure worth the wait. Like The Square, multiple occasions are a tad uneven due to Östlund’s bloated nature of unpacking the material.
As he keeps concocting one film after the other, Ruben feels as if he shouldn’t hold back; his gut says to keep pushing forward to see how far he can disorientate (or break) the audience. You begin to question whether it has more to say since some of its ideas aren’t explored to their fullest extent and subtlety doesn’t exist at all, to the point where you’d think that a Vera Lynn’s ‘We’ll Meet Again’ needle drop will arrive sooner rather than later once the turmoil begins in the style of Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove. Actually, there are a lot of Vera Lynn songs that fit within the confines of Triangle of Sadness’ comedic trajectory: “Remember, Remember”, “Again”, “Each Moment I Live”, amongst other of her classic and beautiful tracks. You’d think it would reach a high level of scripted aggravation or pretentiousness, but it never actually does. Everything is in your face, and Östlund won’t restrain himself once he has his gears rolling. This is both a good and bad thing.
It lacks the insight and sharpened-teeth comedic brilliance of Force Majeure and doesn’t dwell enough on the themes it covers; it feels like its targets are low-hanging fruit. On the other hand, this maximalist and over-the-top approach does present these concepts of wealthy hierarchies being broken down to their lowest degrees in a vastly entertaining fashion. There are instances in which you might feel as if this will become an exasperating experience. Still, your worries are torn down seconds after due to Östlund’s knack for blending the provocative with the hysterical and intelligent. The perfect word to describe the “key” situations that happen in Triangle of Sadness is schadenfreude, which is German for experiencing pleasure or joy from learning of or witnessing the imperilments, failures, or humiliation of another – in this case, the rich and wealthy. There is a large amount of sympathy towards them, as they just want to be free of misery. As the story develops, we all know that this is their turn to pay their comeuppance.
The Swedish director wants to outdo what he did previously in The Square with an uncomfortable and lengthy comedic scene. He’s putting himself to the test since it is hard to do so after he has Terry Notary’s impeccable scene to square off with. Although none of the comedic set pieces reach that status, most of them are well-constructed and timed – becoming some of the most memorable scenes of the year, comedy-wise. One specific scene almost reaches this point: the seafood dinner scene. This is where the gross-out humor arrives; bodily fluids are all over the pristine yacht floors, and the wealthy are rolling down with it. I’m not a fan of said gross-out humor, which in this case, relies on the coarseness of bodily fluids. Initially, I thought that the use of such comedy was a tad lazy when I first saw the trailer and read reactions. However, as I kept thinking, I came across a thought about the juxtaposition between luxury and vulgarity, which had been slightly remarked upon during that specific scene’s buildup.
Even though that bit goes on for far too long (and the film takes its time to reach that point), it adds to the theme of breaking down the hierarchies and putting the highly arrogant super-rich in their rightful place by dunking their prerogative in raw sewage. They are experiencing the worst time imaginable while they are rotting in their own filth, and what a disgusting joy it is to see it. Although the performances throughout each of the comedic sequences or conversational set-pieces are what make them essentially tick, due to the physicality of their work and trusting Östlund’s wicked mind, these scenes are elevated by the excellent cinematography of Fredrik Wenzel. He captures every piece of shine and glamor, as well as the atrocities and excrement, in sheer clarity to portray the wealthy’s ignorance – with a swaying from left to right when things are going under, both literally and figuratively. There is no disguise for what Östlund wants to say; the social reversal allegory leads a predictable, albeit diverting, path.
Triangle of Sadness is not as sophisticated as its contemporaries (although it doesn’t want to be), nor is his best work (not nearly a masterpiece, as I have heard some people say). Still, this satirical late capitalist parable about the rich’s intolerant food chain and gender roles is never detained by the sledgehammer procedure of its creator. So what holds it back from being a magisterial work of modern satirical mockery? It is a little too long, and more insight would have added a more significant pull than it has. The reason why Triangle of Sadness ultimately succeeds is due to the panache of Östlund’s writing, the excellent work by the cast (especially Dolly De Leon, Charlbi Dean, Zlatko Burić, and Woody Harrelson), and the laughing gas-perfumed atmosphere. This movie will have audiences howling like hyenas from its comedic quips and refrains, as well as baffled at the absurdity of it all while later pondering on the aftermath of these prosperous people’s lives. In the end, the character’s decisions and philosophies are what lead them to their tragic fate.
It is not a revelation of the satirical arts, a didactic story of the rich paying their dues, or a crown jewel of risible compositions, but Triangle of Sadness is just amusing enough to deal with the issues that arise from the somewhat-lacking philosophies of Ruben Östlund’s starving mad mind. It takes its time to get into the madness, yet it is all worth it in the end because Östlund’s latest is so much fun. Should it have won the Palme d’Or? In my opinion, no. There were far more better choices to pick from (Pacifiction, Decision to Leave, or even R.M.N.). Regardless, it made me cackle more times than I would have anticipated since the trailer didn’t do much for me, and I enjoyed it extensively, even with its faults, lack of thematic weight, and little perspicuity. With the news of his next feature being about passengers being stuck on a ten-hour flight with any technological distractions, and Harrelson returning as a possible captain again, titled The Entertainment System is Down, I’m excited about Ruben Östlund’s future as he keeps polishing his directorial hand and creating ridiculous scenarios.