Credit: Ruben Östlund, 2014 credit_ Frankie Fouganthian. Licensed under CC BY SA 4.0

Anticipating the Oscars: On Triangle of Sadness

The Oscar nominated film creates a delicate ecosystem of dissonant personalities where elitism and sexual politics are ruthlessly interrogated.

Ruben Östlund’s final instalment in what he has called an “informal trilogy of male absurdities” is sharply rendered chaos. Triangle of Sadness is a fearless dance, spinning broad sociological questions around bonkers staging. Marking his first full length English language feature and second Palme d’Or victory, this class satire is unafraid to commit to wicked extremes. We watch affluent guests and low-earning crew negotiate dominance and survival as their luxury cruise goes under. Östlund maps a concentrated strike on power via the world of high fashion, a grand ocean liner and, finally, an equalising third act of thorny, Darwinian propulsions. In a delicate ecosystem of dissonant personalities, elitism and sexual politics are ruthlessly interrogated, as the vicissitudes of power placate some, while provoking others. The most stylish disruptor of modern cinema, Östlund confidently lays bare the desperation of human behaviour in this hierarchy shake-up. 

We are living in a fecund “eat the rich” narrative climate: inflicting violence on the 1% has been the dominating plot of recency. In Knives Out, The White Lotus and The Menu the worker becomes king and the moneyed rightfully get their comeuppance. Within these tales, however, we follow those who are new to the high tax bracket, or those who have simply wound up in unfortunate company – either way, a group not yet peers of the plutocratic. Indeed, this is our entry point to Triangle of Sadness: we meet a young model/influencer couple, Carl and Yaya, whose social power is limited to their looks. As a perk of their glamorous jobs, they get free tickets for the cruise and enter a social milieu versed only in contempt and entitlement.

In terms of cinema’s canon of explosive vomit and faeces scenes, Triangle of Sadness offers a confidently repulsive entry, landing like Bridesmaids more art house cousin, with a volume of stool on display that rivals Salò. We find electrifying performances in scene stealing Dolly De Leon as the sangfroid Abigail, a middle-aged woman who goes from maid to de facto team leader post-shipwreck, and chameleon triumph Harris Dickinson as the profoundly tactless Carl. Still allowing for his manic eyes to endearingly glint, Woody Harrelson is also on top form, subdued as the strung-out yacht captain. From arms-dealing octogenarians to fraught waitstaff straining to maintain simpatico, Östlund equips a zany supporting cast with droll dialogue that deliver some of the most truly arresting scenes in recent memory.

Some critique levelled at the Swedish filmmaker is that he is telling us what we already know: the rich are morally bankrupt and greedy, and are thus too easy a target. To suggest the rich are out of touch is indeed, emphatically, neither a novel nor elevated concept, but to reduce the film to that take is to miss its nuance. The rich are still entertainingly impaled, as opposed to simply poked, but Östlund noted his intention to be egalitarian in his cruelty towards the film’s subjects: “it didn’t matter if you were poor or rich, I would treat them equally and challenge them equally because I wanted to avoid the cliche that is rich people are ignorant and egoistic and poor people and spiritual and generous.” And he largely achieves this. While it is always deliciously cathartic to see the wealth hoarders sweat, watching less sympathetic attributes be teased out of the everyman created a refreshingly complicated dynamic. Everyone is held to account, everyone is on trial, and (almost) everyone is insufferable. Following the aftermath of displacement and a loss of control, Östlund reveals how disappointingly self-serving everyone’s motives usually turn out to be.

This film is not at all posturing as a full-bodied manifesto. This is not a strict, edifying tale – it is a playfully exacting, clever conversation starter. In his previous films, Force Majeure and The Square, the arcs of the central characters undergo a shocking twist, a very different trajectory from the relatively linear ones at play here. In Triangle of Sadness Östlund is more inspired in his ambition: putting the revelatory power in specific situations, not characteristics. By not tracking just one individual’s evolution, we journey a story with blurred moral contours, seeing a melange of people react in shared, charged circumstances, in which awkward tensions are drawn out and ultimately produce a more enlightening result. 

From the comedy bow of cinema’s resident king of cringe, humiliation is the appropriate arrow to launch, and he debases his target with gratifying precision.

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