Directed by Ruben Östlund (The Square) — Screenplay by Ruben Östlund.
Alongside the Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Oslo 31. August) and the Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg (Druk), the Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund is one of the very best Scandinavian filmmakers working right now. Östlund has been working as a filmmaker for more than a decade, but I think it’s fair to say that it is with his 2014 effort, Force Majeure, that he had his true international breakthrough. Including his latest film, Östlund’s last three films have all received awards at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. With Triangle of Sadness, the Swede is now a two-time Palme d’Or winner (winning his first one for the utterly hilarious The Square from 2017). Having swapped the square out in favor of a triangle (the title refers to an area between your eyebrows and your nose bridge that can be ‘fixed’ with botox), Östlund has managed to keep his satirical writing equally sharp and at times outright hilarious. Triangle of Sadness is one of the best films of the year.
Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness follows Carl (played by Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (played by Charlbi Dean), a young couple who are both working models. Yaya claims to be with him for business reasons, but Carl insists that he’s going to make her fall in love with him and forget all ideas about becoming some rich guy’s trophy wife. Yaya’s online influencing takes them to a yacht captained by Thomas Smith (played by Woody Harrelson), a drunken American socialist who doesn’t really want to leave his room, even when the yacht’s staff, led by Paula (played by Vicki Berlin) insists that he must. On board, the rich guests order the staff and the crew around, but soon the balance of power will shift.
If The Square zeroed in on privilege and platitudes in the art world, then Östlund has with his latest film, Triangle of Sadness, taken aim at the privilege of the model and fashion world. However, in a larger sense, the Swedish auteur also points his finger at socialism, capitalism, wealth, obliviousness, and what happens to the pampered, the pretty, and the obscenely rich once all things are equalized. I won’t exactly reveal what ‘the great equalizer’ (or, really, the hierarchical inversion) in the film is, except than to say that the latter half of the film’s focus on how beauty can be powerful and transactional fits very well with its opening.
The film is split into three easily distinguishable parts that are presented with title cards. The first part focuses very much on the model and fashion industries, as it focuses exclusively on the nature of Carl and Yaya’s business and their relationship. We see how a fashion show highlights a ‘everyone is equal campaign’ right after people have been removed from the front row to make room for the elite guests. And then Carl and Yaya have a very modern argument about who should pay for dinner. In his previous films, Östlund has liked to focus on uncomfortable situations and sometimes awkward silences, and he hits that same note here. There’s a really great and uncomfortable scene in the backseat of a car, where their argument continues, while the camera drastically swivels, or whip-pans, from one person to the other and back again, almost as if to emphasize how we’re stuck there with them like a third wheel.
Part two focuses on the yacht and the hierarchy on board, with the staff having to accept any demand that their guests have for the purpose of securing a good tip, while the non-white housekeepers and crew below deck are very clearly much further down in the hierarchy (for now). Östlund’s sharp writing and biting comedy peaks in this section of the film, as it all leads to a frankly hysterical gross-out scene full of vomit. It’s the highlight of the film and is sure to be one of the years most unforgettable sequences in any film. The third part presents this hierarchical inversion and continues to expose what the elite is actually worth when it comes down to it. This section is also really good and well-written, but I must say that this section feels a little bit too long. To add to that, I think it is fair to say that, even though it really works, Östlund’s satire here is, in general, not exactly subtle.
With The Square, I highlighted the excellent central performance from Claes Bang. His central performance — along with Terry Notary’s memorable appearance — is basically what I remember the film for. With Triangle of Sadness, I think it’s more of a team effort, or a great ensemble cast. Everyone is uniformly excellent from Vicki Berlin to the late Charlbi Dean. If I were to highlight a couple of standouts, then it would have to be Woody Harrelson, whose surprisingly short appearance leaves a strong impression, but also the performances of both Zlatko Burić (who you may remember from Nicolas Winding Refn’s Pusher trilogy) and Dolly de Leon. Burić plays an obscenely rich Russian (he calls himself the ‘King of Shit’ because he is known for his fertilizer empire), who, for large chunks of it, steals the movie (he is delightful). Dolly de Leon is arguably the star of part three, where her character proves her actual worth.
Ruben Östlund’s brand of cinema isn’t for everyone. His dark humor and satire can divide opinion, but I do think that Triangle of Sadness is a fairly accessible entry in his filmography. If you loved The Square, then you’ll love this. It is an excellent satire of privilege that exposes faux-equality and individual worth, and, in moments, it is absolutely hysterical. It may not be very subtle about its themes, but I can totally understand why it netted Östlund his second Palme d’Or. So, I ask, what’s the next shape, Ruben Östlund?
9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.