Triangle of Sadness
“Triangle of Sadness” is the newest addition to the last three months of independent and horror film success. On May 5, 2022, the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, but it was released on Oct. 7 in the United States. It is already having a significant impact on arthouse theaters. In the independent Nashville theater I saw it in this past weekend, the house was packed. However, the production did not manage to make it on many screens in major theaters, leading to a paltry box office total of $4.8 million on a $15.6 million budget. The film was directed by Ruben Ostlund and produced by Erik Hemmendorff and Phillippe Bober.
The film consisted of three parts. In Part One, Carl and Yaya appear at an audition for a fashion show. Lined up on a wall with a group of other male models, we are introduced to the main character Carl, portrayed by Harris Dickinson. Carl is an overanalyzing, jealous, and self-centered 20-something who seeks substance in his life. We follow Carl to a romantic dinner with his disinterested Instagram-influencer girlfriend Yaya, played by Charlbi Dean. She is similar to Carl in the sense that both are privileged by their looks. Both are models who are given opportunities and free things because they are attractive. Their dinner turns into a violent discussion over who has the obligation to pay. Carl believes since he makes less he should not always have to pay, and Charlbi thinks paying is a sign of the man’s ability to provide. This argument is somewhat comical to the audience — both characters are privileged beyond belief. It comes off as two trust fund kids fighting over who has to use the family credit card. After they make up at the hotel, we transition to the second part.
Part Two begins on a yacht that currently hosts a luxury cruise for the obscenely rich. The passengers include oligarchs, tech investors, weapon manufacturers, and Carl and Yaya. It is full of zany antics and hilarious interactions between the guests and the crew. For instance, there is a ten minute vomiting sequence in which nearly the entire guest list gets seasick and unloads the contents of their stomachs all over every surface of the vessel, with a great score playing in the background, of course. This idea usually never works. Audiences do not typically enjoy watching people vomit, and such scenes, if they exist, are short. But in this case, we somehow enjoy the chaos. Once this scene began, Part Two never de-escalated or calmed down. Woody Harrelson’s character, Captain Smith, was very strong in this part. He is a Communist American ship captain who does not care for the health or safety of his privileged guests. While almost every guest is having the worst night of their lives, he does nothing, laughing at the situation. His character compliments the film well. He provides a healthy contrast to the domineering behavior of the stressed-out crew managers, as well as the guests themselves. To a degree, he is the audience, seemingly having no stake in what occurs on the yacht: simply sadistically enjoying the misfortune that ensues.
The over-the-top insanity that occurs in this part of the movie makes you wonder how the filmmakers could fail so definitively in Part Three: The Island. The third part begins with a pirate attack on the yacht, which quickly results in the shipwreck of the vessel and the stranding of nine guests on a deserted island. Part Two is filled with constant action and comedy, whereas Part Three is slow and plodding. All the momentum generated by the previous part vanishes ten minutes into Part Three. Watching the nine characters slowly learn survival skills may be entertaining content for a reality show, but after what was experienced in the preceding part, it is undeniably dragging the plot.
Abigail, a Filipino janitor on the yacht, quickly becomes the leader of the group due to her superior survival abilities. This is the first time we have seen her in the film. We learn she is a smart and resourceful woman who has been repressed and abused by the other, more European members of the crew. Her sense of humor and brusqueness makes her a natural leader given the circumstances. She teaches them how to start a fire, cook food, hunt, and work together. The film then proceeds to develop new relationships between the surviving members of the cruise. Nothing truly eventful happens from this point to the end of the film. The third part harms the film, because it does not match the pace of either of the two previous parts. Part One is of moderate intensity, and Part Two is insane. Part three does nothing.
Given the pacing mistakes that the film clearly exhibits, it is difficult to imagine how this production won the Palme d’Or, the premier award of the Cannes Film Festival. To provide context, only nine directors have ever won the Palme d’Or twice. Following his film “The Square” in 2017, “Triangle of Sadness” adds Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund to that acclaimed list of directors. The question, then, is how did this film win? It did not just fail mechanically; it also failed as a piece of satire. In a sense, the film is a worse “Parasite.” It gives the impression that Östlund just discovered the phenomenon of rich people doing bad things and could hardly wait to tell audiences about it. The comedic moment between the Russian oligarch and Woody Harrelson’s Captain Smith, hilarious as it is, is a perfect example of Östlund’s failed political commentary. They spend at least six minutes debating the merits of capitalism and communism, at which point the audience is tired and wants to move on. Movie-goers, especially to independent films like these, have seen so many interpretations of this argument that for a film like this to work, it must be original. And unfortunately, the version in “Triangle of Sadness” is not.
Moreover, the film creates a divide between the perspectives of the crew and of the guests as it mirrors the inequality between the rich and poor, but fails to seriously characterize any of the crew. Abigail’s character is only developed by the last third of the film, but by then, over two thirds of the film is over. She is the only member of the crew fully fleshed out by Östlund, yet that characterization comes too late for us to appreciate her.
As pure comedy, the “Triangle of Sadness” succeeds. However, as a political satire, the movie misses the mark. It adds no serious new commentary to the cinematic tradition of satirizing financial excess, nor does it present any themes in a way that is unique.