“Östlund can dress entertainment in an intellectual cloak and give it a unique taste like no one else”
There’s no doubt that Ruben Östlund is one of the best mockers of contemporary cinema today. As the director has mentioned, his previous films The Square (2017) and Force Majeure (2014) were about people trying to avoid losing face. Now, in his latest Palme d’Or winning dramedy Triangle of Sadness, he floods us with brilliant humor, mocking the hypocrisy of the elite and the capitalist system.
The movie is divided into three parts, the first of which may seem a bit detached from the rest. It follows Carl (Harris Dickinson), a model who has great physical attributes but is almost always sent home from job castings with a bill. His girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) is a supermodel and influencer who definitely seems to earn more than him, causing an awkward rift in their relationship. They quarrel over who should be paying the bill at a fancy restaurant; these are, of course, only pretexts for contemplating contemporary gender roles.
The second part takes place on an exclusive yacht where this couple and several other wealthy people are invited. Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), the commander of the ship, is a hybrid of a Marxist and an alcoholic who despises his filthy rich guests, but not their money. What’s interesting about this boat is that its structure reflects the social setting of its passengers. On the upper deck, there are the elite-class guests who demand immediate fulfillment of even the most bizarre cravings, such as a childish request that all employees use an inflatable slide, reserved only for them. It leads viewers to ask themselves: who are we to judge the rich?
Downstairs, the crew manager is seen constantly reminding her team of the important tips that await them in exchange for their polite service to the guests. And of course, the lowest deck comprises manual workers— all people of color. The hierarchy makes perfect sense, as it is much like that of today’s world. Everyone is accustomed to it, and even part of it in some capacity.
As the crew and guests find themselves trapped in several comical situations, including a wild montage of seasickness following the captain’s dinner, catastrophe strikes. This leads into part three of the film, in which Carl, Yaya, and a number of passengers find themselves stranded on an island after unforeseen circumstances. This group also includes the crew manager and toilet-cleaning staff member Abigail (Dolly de Leon), hence depicting the awkward pairing of members from each social class.
It’s both dramatic and hilarious seeing these individuals fight over who gets to have the largest share of leftovers, and who gets to sleep inside the enclosed boat. What’s more, only the manual worker knows how to perform basic survival tasks, such as building a fire and hunting for food. As chaos descends among them, the balance of power ultimately shifts, and the order of things is reversed, introducing a new kind of class conflict.
After this film, one thing audiences know for sure is that Östlund has a knack for portraying hypocrisy, especially that of the elite. Just in the opening scene, he depicts the audition for a fashion show. Later on the yacht, he divides the customers into wealthy admirers of renowned brands, with the lower class wearing basic t-shirts. This is an interesting thing to note because the same individuals are also seen pumping equality slogans in the media. Dickinson and Dean’s performances are delightfully comical, adding so much levity to the film’s satirical tone. De Leon also plays a major role in enlivening the pace of the movie, especially during the third part.
Ultimately, Triangle of Sadness is proof that Östlund can dress entertainment in an intellectual cloak and give it a unique taste like no one else. Whether it’s his critique of capitalism, his attempts at dark humor or simply tiny details like the titular area between the main character’s eyebrows and nose bridge, the director put quite a lot of effort into this project. The story definitely gets a bit too ridiculous at times, but its portrayal of privilege is unbelievably accurate and on point.