“Eat the rich” social commentary is becoming more mainstream – with at least three comedy movies playing at TIFF all tackling the subject. While all of these films are far from subtle, and cover the issues in a variety of clumsily obvious ways – it is good that being critical of capitalist structures and social inequality is becoming more common in entertaining, populist movies and TV series. The popularity of Korean work such as Parasite and Squid Game has maybe prompted those working in Europe and Hollywood to tackle similar themes.
Triangle of Sadness is the third of Swedish director Ruben Östlund’s movies to have found international success, after the comedies Force Majeure and The Square. Triangle of Sadness was a surprise repeat winner of the Palme d’Or for Östlund, after The Square won in 2017, he repeated the feat at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.
Triangle of Sadness is broken into three main acts. Firstly, we meet British couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who are models and influencers. The first and maybe the best act simply follows them having a hilariously awkward argument over the bill in a restaurant, which continues into the elevator and up to their hotel room.
The second (and longest) act is set on a luxury yacht, and the couple have been gifted a cruise as part of one of their influencing deals. They meet a variety of eccentric super-rich oligarchs, moguls and the like. The highlight of this section is probably them enjoying the captain’s dinner while chatting to a sweet elderly British couple named Clementine and Winston. It gradually dawns on them where their wealth came from, and spoiler alert! It’s evil.
Many members of the crew on the yacht also become major characters – there’s the super-efficient Paula (Vicki Berlin) who is just trying to keep the peace between the guests and crew. There is one particularly awkward section where a rich Russian lady tries to get one crewmember – and then all the crewmembers – to go swimming, and cannot see how difficult she is making things.
There’s also cleaning lady Abigail (Dolly De Leon) and The Captain (Woody Harrelson), who spends the entire cruise hiding in his room drinking. That is until the disastrous captain’s dinner which escalates into full French farce territory. I had to close my eyes and ears for almost this entire section, it’s that excruciating, but your tolerance for toilet humour will vary.
The third and final act takes place after pirates attack the yacht and sink it, meaning that several main characters end up on a deserted island. The film picks up again at this point, as the social hierarchy is upended and the rich find that their Rolexes etc are of no use to them here. Cleaning lady Abigail comes into her own as the Captain of the island, as she’s the only one with any useful skills, such as fishing and fire building. Carl also becomes embroiled in an exchanging-sex-for-pretzel-sticks scheme, selling the only commodity he has – both on the island in the ‘real world.’
Triangle of Sadness succeeds most in its small details, rather than its broader brushstrokes. Östlund wisely lets the camera linger for long shots, particularly on Carl and Yaya – as in the opening argument. Another time that he does this is when they’re sunbathing on the deck of the boat and have another squabble – this time over Yaya checking out a crewmember with a hairy chest. A fly buzzes over and between them – no amount of money or fame can stop imperfections from intruding on their rarefied world, whether it’s flies or pirates.
Östlund’s greatest strength is probably in getting such fun and brilliantly funny performances out of the large ensemble, and also in his blocking. There are frequent scenes where both the foreground and background provide equal entertainment. The yacht may be vast and luxurious, but it’s also claustrophobic, with narrow corridors and few places where you can escape the other passengers. Unless you’re going to completely hole yourself up like The Captain, of course. While Östlund’s dialogue is unbelievably on-the-nose, it is also frequently hilarious, especially when delivered by a talented group of actors.
Harris Dickinson is proving himself to be a younger version of Ryan Gosling – he can do subtle and stoic (Beach Rats, The Souvenir: Part II), but has demonstrated that he is also extremely adept at comedy in the likes of Xavier Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime. Iris Berben is impressive as the German Therese, who has suffered a stroke and can only repeat one phrase. Dolly De Leon steals the show as Abigail, and the final section of the movie is undoubtedly hers.
At two-and-a-half hours, there’s no doubt that Triangle of Sadness is overlong, and the middle section set on the yacht could definitely have been shorter. The satire is thunderingly obvious (the captain and the Russian billionaire arguing over communism vs capitalism spells out the themes extremely blatantly), the plotting largely predictable (in knowing that the super-rich will likely get their comeuppance), and it’s not saying anything new or insightful about society.
However, Triangle of Sadness is funny and entertaining, and has some great performances – especially Dickinson, to the point where the film suffers whenever he’s not on screen. At times hilarious, but frequently frustrating, Ruben Östlund won’t be winning any converts with this one.
Triangle of Sadness review
Funny and entertaining, with some great performances, especially Harris Dickinson. At times outrageously hilarious, but its satire is as subtle as a sledgehammer.