After winning Cannes’ top prize for The Square, director Ruben Östlund is back with a cruise liner comedy that’s an excruciating, vomit-filled ‘assault on the super-rich’, writes Nicholas Barber.
Ruben Östlund won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2017 with his modern-art satire, The Square. Five years on he returns to Cannes with another satire, Triangle of Sadness, and it’s even better – a frontal assault on the super-rich, and on the capitalist system in general, which has enough rage and riotous abandon to compensate for its lack of subtlety.
Actually, that’s not entirely fair, because although Östlund makes his points with unapologetic frankness, the Swedish writer-director’s first English-language film shows that he is still capable of quietly uncomfortable, penetrating social comedy. This is what we get in the opening scenes, when the film appears to be a straightforward lampoon of the fashion industry. In advertising shoots, notes Östlund, the more expensive the brand, the more grumpy the models have to pretend to be. As for the title, the ‘triangle of sadness’ is the term given to the frown lines between your eyebrows.
The poor soul who may need Botox to treat his own triangle is Carl (a superb Harris Dickinson), a gangly male model who would like to be intellectually and politically progressive, but whose better instincts are always overtaken by his insecurities. His girlfriend Yaya (Charlbli Dean) is a model, too, but because she is female, she gets paid much more than he does – so why is she so slow to pay the bill at a fancy restaurant? The couple’s disagreement on this matter could have come from an episode of Seinfeld, but Östlund doesn’t ease the tension with a punchline. Just as he did in his breakthrough film, Force Majeure (which was remade in America, incidentally, with Julia Louis-Dreyfus from Seinfeld in one of the starring roles), he keeps the argument going well after the stage that most directors would have given up and moved on. It’s an excruciatingly funny reminder that Östlund is cinema’s king of the awkward situation, but it also sets up the question which will recur throughout the film: why is it that some people are deemed to be more worthy of money than others?
Triangle of Sadness has quite some running time for a satirical comedy – but it is never boring.
This question is unavoidable when the action moves away from the modelling industry and on to a luxury cruise liner: Yaya and Carl are on board for free, because the photos of her posing with food she won’t actually eat will be seen by millions of Instagram followers. The couple meets a grotesque array of haves and have-nots, plus the have-somes in between. The haves include a cheerful oligarch (Zlatko Buric) who made his millions by selling animal droppings as fertiliser, and a cosy old British couple who amassed their fortune in an even less savoury way. The have-somes include a captain (Woody Harrelson) who would rather get blind drunk in his cabin than mix with the passengers he despises, and a steely chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), who is left to run the show. One searing example of the haves’ entitlement comes when a passenger insists, on a whim, that the crew members enjoy themselves by having a swim. It doesn’t occur to her that they’d rather get on with their jobs: she wants them to swim, so that’s what they’ll do.
But the hierarchy is about to change. First, some stormy weather and some glutinous haute cuisine results in the most hilariously disgusting vomiting scene since the Mr Creosote sketch in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. The sozzled captain and the oligarch swap quotes from Noam Chomsky and Ronald Reagan, and the cruise seems to be hurtling towards a bacchanalian anarchy redolent of JG Ballard’s High-Rise. Then Östlund begins a sardonic third chapter. For reasons I won’t reveal, eight people from the ship ended up stranded on a desert island, and suddenly it doesn’t matter who has the most dollars or Instagram followers. Antonia (Dolly De Leon), the cool, savvy toilet cleaner, is the only person capable of catching a fish or lighting a fire, so she becomes the survivors’ leader. She alone has the power to give or withhold packets of pretzel sticks. Offers of Rolex watches aren’t going to sway her, but some time alone with Carl just might.
Be warned. Triangle of Sadness rants and smirks at the state of the world over two-and-a-half hours, which is quite some running time for a satirical comedy. But it is never boring. Partly that’s because the political commentary is so shrewd, and partly it’s because it has a surprising amount of warmth and nuance, too. Östlund ensures that while the situations may be absurd, the people in them are as human as any of us.
By Nicholas Barber