A big part of what makes a good satire vital, is the pledge of taking things seriously. Swedish director Ruben Östlund certainly lives by this rule and perhaps it is that which assured that his ‘man-in-trouble’ trilogy will be rounded up in a rather delightful way with the chicly-titled Triangle of Sadness. Borrowed from the beauty industry, this poetic-sounding term refers to the wrinkles nesting between one’s eyebrows that’s usually treated as a repository of worries, therefore, smoothed out and eliminated through fillers and lifts. It’s very much on brand for Östlund to explore surface level aesthetics through a moral lens; but it’s the moral of the perceiver that often falls prey to his meta-satirical treatment. Surface, in the case of Triangle of Sadness, includes the fashion and beauty industries, alongside its image-making myths.
The film’s tripartite structure expands and contracts around a couple-protagonist: Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) are both successful models making full use of the influx of IG followers their relationship can bring. In this economy of beauty, men earn only a third of what their female colleagues take home and soon enough, money is singled out as the touchy subject for both Carl and Yaya. In a masterfully paced sequence, the two fight over the (lack of) bill splitting and their slightly hysterical bickering only confirms the cliché that it’s “unsexy to talk about money.” Clearly, there is an associative link between the larger framework of capitalism’s inarticulate but firm grasp, and the characters’ difficulties to give name to what they truly desire. As a diligent student of human behavior, Östlund knows exactly which buttons to push.
Triangle of Sadness is, firstly, a spectacle: from its opening sequence packed with bare-chested male models, to the film’s second part which unfolds entirely on a multi-million-dollar yacht governed by alcoholic-communist-captain (Woody Harrelson), and secondly, a glorious take on Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.” While it doesn’t opt for a fantastical satire of capitalism, such as the one offered by Julian Radlmaier’s Bloodsuckers (2021), Triangle’s political witticisms offer a potent interpretative key for the whole film, even the many less than serious bits. We have Nutella jars helicoptered in for the cruise; an elderly lady demands all the crew take a dip from the water slide upon command; a rather lovely pair of retired Brits talk about their family business of arms dealing in a jolly manner – all of these bits and more await in the action-packed middle part of the film. The thematic crescendo takes everyone by storm (literally) and what follows is most definitely not for the faint-hearted – beware of toilet humor and metaphors of overindulgence made literal.
Toeing the line between humorous and ethically compromised situations, the film expands its ideological criticism into its third act which carries the singular hint at redemption. It is also openly class-critical, allocating retributive values to the underclass and the marginalized workers, shown intermittently in the ship’s underbelly. Both working and upper class are framed centrally, from a slightly lower angle so we rarely match eye level and avoid most of the opportunities for direct address – a trick which always keeps the viewer at bay. The same glossy, illuminated camerawork (regular collaborator Fredrik Wenzel) captures all the glitz and glam of a luxurious lifestyle and its degeneration, while the widescreen format seems to beg for extra scrutiny.
Östlund is capable of sending his audience down a spiral of moralistic self-perception, (i.e., “If I laughed out loud, what would that say about me as a person?”) Triangle of Sadness does toy with how immaterial hierarchies really are and its satirical potential comes from hyperbole and stylisation: as if he has remodeled them into museum pieces. But if 2017 Palme d’Or winner The Square (2017) has taught us anything, it is that people are willing to play along, no matter the cost. We might at least have some fun while the world is burning.
This review is from the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. There is currently no U.S. distribution.