Film Review: The Queasy Thrills of ‘Triangle of Sadness’
Ruben Ostlun’s Palme d’Or-winning film takes potshots at the rich and gorgeous
Writer-director Ruben Ostlun’s Triangle of Sadness took home the Palme d’Or, the top award at the Cannes International Film Festival, on Saturday evening and the 48-year-old Swede joined the tiny league of nine directors who have won the award twice. Ostlund received his first Palme d’Or for The Square in 2017.
Ostlun, who gently unveiled human selfishness and hypocrisy in Force Majeure, his 2014 dark family drama set in the Alps, followed that up in 2017 with a disquieting takedown of the art world in The Square. In Triangle of Sadness, he sets his sights on the rich and gorgeous.
Set in the world of stunning women and rich men, Triangle of Sadness is a smasher of a film. It is wildly entertaining, visually dazzling and its politics, especially class politics, is sharp, severe.
The film’s screenplay is funny and evil by design. Its intent is to provoke, offend and make us retch.
Triangle of Sadness provides a catwalk for the display of arrogance — of money, beauty and power — and as it does so, it unleashes social satire, all manner of bodily fluids and throws in some solids as well.
Triangle of Sadness opens on a brilliant and bitchy note. Young male models, bare-chested and smooth as silk, are being auditioned for an ad campaign. In the waiting room, a young man in a black turtleneck T-shirt with a mic and a cameraman is interviewing them. He jokes about models’ two expressions and how easy it is to figure out, through their expression, what kind of brand they are advertising — models in high street brands like H&M will flash toothy grins from the pages of fashion glossies, while models of luxury brands like Balenciaga will look down on their consumer with a haughty, sullen expression. It’s from this delightful set piece that the film gets its title.
Triangle of Sadness is split into three chapters, and each one has its own setting. The first one is set in the modelling world and involves two models who are dating, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (South African actress Charlbi Dean Kriek). This segment has one of the film’s best and funniest set pieces about men, women, gender roles and restaurant bills.
Carl thinks that theirs should be a relationship of equals, while Yaya, who has charted her life’s course based on the privileges that she thinks are due to her, balks at the idea.
She provides beauty, and the world, she believes, must keep thanking her for it.
The film’s second chapter is set on a $250 million luxury yacht where the staff — all except the captain — are devoted to pampering the rich guests and pandering to their whims.
The cruise is like a tableau of the insane privileges of the rich and gorgeous who can’t see beyond their needs and are oblivious to the malevolence in their showy generosity. So when the drunk wife of a Russian businessman says she wants all the staff to have a great time, they must all line up to have a great time.
It’s from the sun decks of the yacht that the film gets its oomph and plot.
All is going well till the ship’s captain (Woody Harrelson), who was missing and seemingly in the throes of an existential meltdown, appears. A sea storm disrupts the captain’s dinner, and thereon things don’t go down well, quite literally.
If you have issues with bodily fluids, I seriously suggest that you go buy the popcorn during this segment. Ostlun goes completely overboard here and satire turns to sewage.
The third and final chapter of the film is set on a deserted island. Some passengers and crew are marooned and all they have to survive are some packers of chips, pretzels and Evian. No one has any survival skills except the ship’s toilet manager, Abagail (Dolly De Leon). It’s on the island that power shifts, hierarchies change and new dynamics are in place. Abagail, who suddenly finds herself in the captain’s chair, decides to claim some privileges and joys for herself.
Triangle of Sadness traces its lineage to Force Majore and The Square, but it’s a bigger, more ambitious film than the earlier ones.
Ostlund has never been a polite director. He’s not the sort to go easy on the queasy. He’s the sort of director who will zero in on what is sure to put off people and then keep at it till they squirm and scream. But he has been subtle in the past. Not here. Triangle of Sadness completely disregards the audience’s appetite for faeces, bile and overflowing toilets, and Ostlund’s motto here seems to be, more is less.
He directs the film’s three chapters as if they are operatic pieces with static class hierarchies and a few moving parts. In each one he aims for excruciating discomfort. The film’s end, when life comes full circle, is absolutely devastating and the perfect finale to this stunning piece of satire.