‘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.