Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund, 2022). Courtesy of Fredrik Wenzel; © Plattform Produktion
Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model on a luxury cruise with his influencer girlfriend Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean), lays a chunky hardcover across his suntanned abs. As the couple bicker about whether or not she chirped “hi!” in a flirty way at a buff, shirtless deckhand, the title of the book is prominent in the foreground: Ulysses. At first, this choice of beach read seems like a sight gag. It’s hard to fathom that anybody would spend their vacation with Leopold Bloom, especially someone who’s built their life around the careful construction of alluring surfaces.
Carl’s reading material has a meta resonance in Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Östlund’s second Palme d’Or winner. With Ulysses, Joyce broke radically with narrative tradition, opening up, through formal experimentation, new possibilities for the communication of human experience in fiction. Östlund’s satire asks whether its characters might be capable of the same level of imagination: could they upend the status quo to build a new society from the ground up, to tell an as-yet-untold story about how we might all live together. Triangle’s structure makes a joke of order and disorder, offering an implicit critique of familiar forms. Although its plot is clearly segmented into three sections, they aren’t evenly balanced or beholden to tight plotting. This dissonance between rigid structure and internal chaos suggests that a drive for stability, a reliance on traditional narratives, will be our undoing: the characters desperately uphold a pantomime of class, respectability, and power even when the ship’s pipes are exploding with diarrhea and vomit, even when characters loudly and performatively lament the exploitation of the working class, and even when the vessel itself—where the bulk of the film’s action takes place—is sinking into the ocean. It’s ironic, then, that Östlund flounders here thanks to an unusually heavy narrative hand.
The story begins with a chapter titled “Carl and Yaya,” a farcical vignette about the modeling industry inspired by Östlund’s wife’s experiences as a fashion photographer. (The title of the film is industry jargon, a name for the frown line between one’s eyebrows that models often have Botoxed.) In one of Carl’s casting sessions, a chiseled group of men in low-rise jeans cycle through expressions as the photographer yells out different brand names: a sulk for haute-couture Balenciaga; a grin for ready-to-wear H&M. Later, Carl—banished to the back row of a runway show because of some late-coming VIPs—watches Yaya walk in front of a video wall preaching equality and political consciousness: THERE IS A NEW CLIMATE IN THE WORLD … OF FASHION. The couple go out to dinner at an old-money, gilded-age restaurant, an unlikely date spot for two beautiful people under 30, and the trouble begins when Yaya pretends not to notice the check.
As the two models spiral into a protracted argument about gender roles, it’s hard not to think of Larry David, to whom Östlund is frequently compared: Carl is upset because Yaya, who earns more, expects him to be the breadwinner, while Yaya insists that it’s not “sexy” to talk about money. “I want us to be equal,” Carl tells her; their eavesdropping cabdriver, a bad influence straight out of Curb Your Enthusiasm, urges him to be more aggressive so as not to become her “slave.” Östlund is interested in the way that “equality” becomes half-hearted rhetoric, a verbal tactic within a fight that’s actually fueled by retrograde conventions of heterosexual desire, power, and wealth; the real strength of the sequence, though, is in the improvisatory way that the performances build on each other. Dickinson and Dean spar with quicksilver reactivity, and Dean especially puts forward a magnetic façade of openness.
This clash between language and action prepares us for the rest of the film, which shifts focus to the yacht cruise in chapter two. During a hellish event called the “Captain’s Dinner,” the ship’s clientele—whose wealth derives from Candy Crush–like apps and military technology (i.e., hand grenades)—congregate for a black-tie evening of fine dining and a meet-and-greet with the ship’s mostly absent, alcoholic captain (Woody Harrelson). Fittingly, the soirée is soundtracked by a player piano. When the vessel hits some rough sea, the camera starts to tilt like a pendulum; nothing could be worse for the ship’s guests, most of whom are blackout drunk from the cruise’s bountiful champagne. Nauseated by plates upon plates of jiggling molecular gastronomy, the passengers attempt to keep a stiff upper lip while puking their guts out. A torrent of vomit from the top deck soils one of the boat’s windows, only for a squeegee to appear, futilely, a second later; crew members steadfastly offer each passenger a mint with a smile as they flee this disaster zone. The sequence’s humor stems from the way in which class roles persist in a moment of total cataclysm, even as we watch a woman rolling in her own liquefied shit like a rag doll, the camera still tilting at a constant rhythm.
Half a century ago, Luis Buñuel perfected the surreal, aristocratic dining satire, toilets and all. So where is Östlund steering this ship today? His films are often accused of being glib and condescending toward their characters, but as brutal and pitch-dark as his comedy can be, his strongest work reveals him to be a committed humanist; he takes our behavior at its pettiest and most despicable as a starting point for moral inquiry. In 2017, Dennis Lim wrote that while Michael Haneke’s explorations of social responsibility can feel like clinical “steel traps” for his characters, Östlund seems genuinely delighted by the surprises of his bourgeois roller coasters. But in Triangle, apart from the opening third, the director seeks a change of pace from the expertly awkward, circuitous exchanges of bad faith that he pushed to the limit in Force Majeure and his masterpiece, The Square. In contrast to these comedic extremes, Triangle’s humor is easier to swallow, its execution competent, mannered, even inviting. Rather than implicating the viewer, the film’s characters exist at an exaggerated and cartoonish remove, and there’s less room for surprise within the taut three-part structure—let alone the curiosity about the breaking points of social norms that made his work from Play onward so uniquely discomfiting and unforgettable.
Here, Östlund is strongest, and most unsettling, when dramatizing the failure of theory and intellect alone, without praxis, to offer a life raft. Before the ship goes down, Harrelson’s improbably Marxist captain and a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Burić) Google quotes about Marxism and capitalism on their phones and read them out loud to each other, giggling uncontrollably as if in high-school debate. All of this leaves the film’s third chapter, which follows the survivors of the shipwreck, to slide toward anticlimactic predestination. When a small group of the passengers, including Yaya and Carl, find themselves beached on a remote, tropical island, Östlund seems finally to arrive at an ideal social experiment, contriving a situation in which the characters are faced with the chance to reject the status quo that governed, and destroyed, their lives. Stripped to their barest needs, will they take action to build a new and better future? As it turns out, old habits die hard. The survivors end up inverting the previous power hierarchy and finding a new leader in Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a member of the ship’s cleaning crew who spots an opening to take decisive, forceful charge because she’s the only one with any survival skills. When, at the end of the film, Yaya commends Abigail for creating her own patriarchy, Östlund makes his irony-drenched point: there’s no way to escape capitalism without collectively abandoning the metaphorical ship. The punch line is that this happens when the real boat has splintered apart and sunk.
In an 11th-hour reveal, Östlund suggests that there might be a way for the survivors to escape the island and return home. Is that possibility a mirage? What would happen if they did—how would they confront the world as it is, where, as Yaya blithely bluffs (or doesn’t, depending on how a viewer parses that line between her brows), she would like to hire Abigail as her personal assistant? Östlund’s sensibility seems perfect for that premise, which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this film. With Triangle of Sadness, the filmmaker’s trademark wrinkles have been Botoxed out of sight.
Chloe Lizotte is the editorial manager for the digital edition of MUBI Notebook. She writes regularly on film, new media, and comedy for Reverse Shot, Vulture, and other outlets.