Category Archives: New York Film Festival

‘Triangle of Sadness,’ NYFF60, Östlund’s Brilliant Satire

The outrageous, mind-bending Ruben Östlund (Force Majeure and The Square) presents an informal treatise on power constructs in his immensely sardonic, over-the-top Triangle of Sadness. Deftly, Östlund presents an interesting sequence, holds our attention, then gyrates away on another tangent. Tension, shock and awkwardness, that comes from uncertainty and being whipped off-balance, characterizes this filmmakers’ modus operandi. Profoundly, our state of unease, uncertainty and laughter keeps us entertained on his playground of Triangle of Sadness.

The film provides an extraordinary and macabre fun house where no rules apply. Indeed, reversals turn on a dime. Also, mythic themes pop up and unravel our complacency. Östlund enjoys having his audience on. Invariably, his situations and characters, profoundly stained, cause us to feast on our own hypocrisy while projecting our foibles onto his characters. As a result we laugh heartily at the wild ride he makes us take. With mischievousness Östlund proves that all human nature has at its core the same rotted substance. Regardless of how elite the class, how gorgeous the outer shell, how “in control” and staid people appear to be, they, and humanity are one crooked mess that drown in their own s**t. (This is a marvelous metaphor that Ostlund slams us with in the middle of the film.)

The title references a physical imperfection-the cosmetic industry term “triangle of sadness.” Alluding to the wrinkles between the eyebrows, these imperfections eventually need Botox for a smoother appearance. Humorously, Östlund strikes us with the phrase during the opening sequence of the film. Relating it to the important theme of physical perfection and the sanctity of beauty, that triangle metaphorically haunts the characters throughout the film. In every sequence wrinkles eventually appear on the surface of the once perfect situation. Afterward, problems, storms, trauma and insidiously terrible events rain down.

As usual Östlund begins his film with energy. Backstage at a casting call, we note a documentary crew. Barking orders and questions, assistants interview gorgeous, camera-beautiful men about their career choices in a profession that pays women models much more. Put through their paces the hunky models alternate their facial expressions. First, assistants tell them to think H & M Ad: boyish grin, fun-loving, happy. Then assistants tell them to change their expression for the upscale brand image like Dolce & Gabbana. The hotties change their facial expressions to a remote and solemn stare. At some point during the models rapidly alternating expressions, the assistant mentions their “triangle of sadness.”

Thus, in this hysterical sequence the filmmaker exposes the elitism built into the culture through subliminal images that promote brands. Rich equals remote and unflappable. And middle class equals accessible, friendly, economical. When we wear the upscale brands, and manifest the serious look, we don wealth. The filmmaker ridicules this canard, the foundation of corporations’ overpricing and profiteering.

Immediately, the filmmaker preps us for a subtle expose of the themes of wealth, privilege, beauty, as he pits them against the middle class struggle to gain the enviable elites’ “heavenly” status and position by any means necessary. Meanwhile, the concepts of worth and value of life, decency, generosity, wholeness, kindness fly out the window. The “Eternal Verities” of ancient times, in other words, the moral and human values brought by insight, meditation and reflection don’t show their expressions when money, power, privilege hold sway. The various players in the cruise portion of the film are pawns of corporate commercialism and conspiring victims of their own demise.

After the humiliating casting call the writer/director highlights his protagonist Carl (Harris Dickinson) who we just watched embarrass himself. Sitting in a luxury restaurant, he looks upscale with his female physical equal, the lovely Yaya (Charlbi Dean). The opening shot of this perfect couple shines with the superiority of great genes and the discipline to maintain and enhance them.

Ironically, Östlund presents that beauty equals wealth and status. And gorgeousness opens the doors to privilege. However, once Carl and Yaya open their mouths, another hysterical truth emerges. If pretty is surface, ungraciousness goes clear to the bone, hinting at soul ugliness.

As the couple nit picks about who should pay the check employing gender stereotypes and power constructs, the clever dialogue hits the mark. Though Yaya earns more than Carl, an ironic reversal, their bickering shows their physical perfection only delivers money to Yaya. As such the filmmaker uses the occasion of Yaya making more than Carl as a gender power dig. Though she offered to pay the day before, she changed her mind because the alpha male should pay.

Thus, the wrinkle appears. Destroying the image of their picture perfect looks and happiness we saw at the top of the scene, they quarrel. With incredibly clever and funny dialogue, Östlund introduces the themes that will abide throughout. Additionally, in the scene and throughout the film, he strips bare cultural male insecurities, fake etiquette, the destructiveness of ancient folkways and much more.

With a striking jump cut, we arrive with the stunning Carl and Yaya on a luxury cruise. Perhaps their looks have served a monetary reward after all. Interestingly, they’ve been invited to enhance the landscape of the cruise to go along with the other elite classy appointments. Also, Yaya an influencer got the cruise as a free perk, a lucky benefit. How this turns out defies one’s imagination beyond definitions of wild and crazy.

As they converse with a senior set of passenger couples, they hang with a Russian fertilizer oligarch, an arms manufacturer an oil baron, etc. Dimitry (Zlatko Burić gives a LOL performance) introduces himself with the phrase, “I sell s$it. After a huge pause, he clarifies, “fertilizer.” Occasionally, we note shots of the crew who makes the ship sparkle and satisfies the passengers every whim. Even Carl’s insecurity takes precedence when he complains a crew member leers at Yaya. Summarily, the captain’s first mate fires him. Indeed, a speedy launch comes a few hours later to remove him. Yes, these rich and beautiful rule the little people, the microcosm of the larger macrocosm of global reality, Östlund, suggests. But remember, the wrinkles.

Passenger requests land from extreme to extreme. In fact Dimitry’s partner suggests the crew take a break in a mawkish attempt at being egalitarian. Of course, they do, for a bit, leaving no one at the helm of the ocean-going yacht. When the Captain (a winningly negligent and drunk Woody Harrelson) refuses to join them for the break, we note another wrinkle. The smooth surface of the ocean can turn on his orders which suffer delays as he puts off his assistants. Finally, one nails him down with a momentous decision. When will they have the meet-up with the passengers at the Captain’s Dinner?

By the time viewers reach the final act of the immersive, volatile and innately entertaining Triangle Of Sadness, which lands them on a desert island with a small group of shipwreck survivors, they will have sworn that its beginning, set in beauty-obsessed corners of the fashion world, happened a few movies ago. This is the heartiest possible compliment I can give Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s latest brainy satire, a continually self-renewing yet uncompromisingly coherent opus. It’s reminiscent of a rich and compact trip you might find yourself on in a country you haven’t visited before, with every new experience feeling just as welcome, rewarding and surprising as the last.

To tell more would ruin the Buñuelian twists of this poison-dipped farce on class and economic disparity, which doesn’t skewer contemporary culture so much as dunk it in raw sewage. A NEON release opening in theaters November 29th.

‘The French Dispatch’ a 59th New York Film Festival Review

Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri in the film THE FRENCH DISPATCH. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures. © 2021 20th Century Studios All Rights Reserved

Fans of the inimitable Wes Anderson’s droll wit and pixie capriciousness will enjoy The French Dispatch, though it diverges from his other films. Truly, this amazing work spins off Craven’s usual stylistic nuances into the realm of the cinematic magazine. Anderson directed and wrote the screenplay with story help from Jason Schwartzman and Roman Coppola.

Importantly, The French Dispatch pays homage to the magazine he riffs, The New Yorker and the renowned writers from the past (James Baldwin) receive more than a nod. Chock full of references, Craven employs his choice mediums (animated car chase, cartoons, cut out color sets, dead on camera framing) and adds the magazine format. This extraordinary film which engrosses, ridicules, satirizes, mourns, praises, and twits writers past and present screens at the 2021 NYFF until 10 October.

Wryly narrated by Anjelica Huston, the film opens by defining “The French Dispatch” as an eponymous expatriate journal published on behalf of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. Ironically, Anderson has named the journal’s place of publication as the fictional 20th century French city, Ennui-sur-Blasé. (Ennui=the city, Blasé=the river)  Roughly, Ennui-sur-Blasé translates as boredom of the worldly-wise apathetic, a superb irony.

Thus, “The French Dispatch” attempts to make middle-America’s readers acculturated cosmopolitans. By way of explaining the periodical’s cleverness, Anderson’s film brings to life a collection of stories from the final print issue. Indeed, this lively anthology serves as an encomium to the death of its editor-in-chief, the big “gun” Arthur Howitzer, Jr (Bill Murray). Thematically, while highlighting the time in France (1950s-1970s) Craven weaves dark ironies that reference the current times.

Using waggish and epigrammatic descriptions, the narrator presents the quirky, peculiar press corps, writers of the wildly over the top stories activated by Anderson. After the director introduces us to the meticulous Howitzer Jr. and others (look for the writer diagramming sentences on a blackboard) we meet cyclist Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson). Craven uses opportunities for humor through double entendre, with names that have nuanced meanings. For example, “Sazerac” is a beloved bourbon or rye cocktail of New Orleanians.

As Sazerac cycles us via a travelogue through Ennui-sur-Blasé, with shots from the past (black and white) and future (color) we note its dinginess (terraced rat dwellings) poverty, underworld pimps and prostitutes and other charms. In other words, the city reeks of humanity which remains forever unchanging. Of course, “The French Dispatch” reports on stories that identify the weirdest and most comically contradictory of the denizens of humanity.

First, Huston introduces a story, assisted with a lecture at a symposium given by J.K.L. Berensen (Tilda Swinton) cultural reporter of the “The French Dispatch” arts section. Berensen relates an amazing tale. One of the foremost contributors to modern art remains hitherto for unknown: psychotic criminal artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio del Toro). On the brink of suicide, Moses finds his answer to life and love via his sadistic prison guard lover Léa Seydoux

With the unpredictable guard as his muse, Moses immortalizes her in abstracts he paints on the concrete walls of the prison. Like Banksy, Moses prevents his greedy, exploitive art dealer (Adrien Brody) from easily trafficking his art by painting his frescoes on a building making them unremovable. During an investors’ showing in the prison, the prisoners riot to muscle in on Moses’ elite visitors and hold them hostage. Moses’s violent nature, which put him in prison serves him well. With brute force Moses destroys the rioters stopping their attack of the dealer and wealthy purchaser Upshur Clampette (Lois Smith). With his investors saved, Moses receives parole. He has provided his unique contribution to the Clampette Museum, representing abstract fine art at its incredibly ironic, violent best.

Next in the collection, the story of student revolutionaries of 1968 compels its reporter Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) to have an “objective” affair with star revolutionary Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet). Helping to straighten out his befuddled theories and justifications to revise his “manifesto,” Krementz as the “older woman,” influences Zeffrielli. Eventually, he succumbs to his nemesis, the beautiful counterrevolutionary Juliette (Lyna Khoudri) and they stay together until tragedy strikes. Nevertheless, the created manifesto lives on as does Krementz’ reportage, though the revolution, the revolutionaries and their Utopian ideals fade from memory into a fever dream of unreality.

Finally, Huston sets up the story of the dinner with a police commissioner (Mathieu Amalric) and his personal chef Lieutenant Nescafier (Steven Park). Gourmand writer Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright) intends to report on the delectable cuisine of the famous Nescafier. However, complications arise when the commissioner, a veritable Jacques Clouseau, has the tables turned on him and criminals kidnap his son. Finally, locating the son, Chef Nescafier prepares a snack which poisons all but the son, the chef and the chauffeur (Ed Norton). The ensuing car chase (a humorous Craven animation) ends with a crash and the son rejoins his father.

At this juncture Howitzer Jr. chides Wright for not describing Nescafier’s cuisine. Wright avers. And thus occurs an incredible moment that alludes to the writing of James Baldwin. Succinctly, Wright describes that he cut out the chef’s words because as an expatriate, the chef, another expatriate made him sad. When Wright repeats Nescafier’s words that he cut, Howitzer Jr. notes with passion that the comment must not be excluded. He insists the Chef’s extraordinary, philosophical observation about the poison in the dish is the only valuable part of the Wright’s work.

Profoundly, in the flash of a moment, we understand why Howitzer Jr. left for this strange outpost in Ennui-sur-Blasé. Fulfilling his goals, he configured a magazine with a global readership that published the profound, the unique, the revelatory. And it included those bits and pieces of life whose revelations edified and informed with a keen, accurate eye. Amazingly, in a brief span of a few moments, Anderson says it all about writing, writers and their editors, finding the elusive and bringing it to our consciousness. Of course, this question Anderson asks silently with The French Dispatch.  What happens when censorship, and an absence of prescience, wisdom and freedom runs the presses, as they do currently in the U.S.?

The French Dispatch bears seeing a few times to catch its luxuriant richness. Not only does Anderson employ fanciful images in contradictions journalistically, the resonance of language and word choice is satiric, sardonic and powerful. So is the mosh of well-thought out cinematography and scenic design. For tickets and times at the 2021 New York Film Festival website.

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