Triangle of Sadness
Directed by Ruben Ostlund
Reviewed by Carol Brogan
Ruben Ostlund’s (Force Majeure, 2014 and The Square, 2017) Triangle of Sadness is invariably billed as a glossy and witty takedown of the mega-rich superyacht culture, and those who desperately want to penetrate it as a means of self-validation through ostentatious consumerism.
The 2022 Palme d’Or winning absurdist tale, ‘social critique’ and slapstick supposed comeuppance of the billionaire glitterati comes in at a whopping 140 minutes, in three acts of time-thieving dispensability.
The story is populated with characters meant to chime with the 2020s Art House filmgoer and consumer of polished film festivals and art fairs: vapid social media influencer – check, New York fashion model – check. Russian oligarchs, British arms manufacturers, and a comically jaded pseudo-communist captain amongst the well-heeled passengers are waited on hand and foot by white, conventionally good-looking, mostly female deckhands with a supporting cast of brown and black cooks and cleaners grafting below deck in the half-light.
So far, so unchallenging, and, with the exception of the unsurprising endgame plot flip in which the female cleaner (who is a person of colour unimaginatively cast as the lustful alpha tropical survivalist subverting the roles of the rich white people, see what he did there!) is lazily placed as the working-class hero outdoing her rich white co-shipwreckees in her (we can only suppose) inherent poor world nous at surviving on a pittance of her white counterparts’ wealth and resources. The film fails to take down the old racist tropes it deploys throughout.
On reading some reviews, much is made of the film’s drawing out of themes such as capitalism, class disparity, power imbalances and gender inequality, the latter of which is fleetingly and shallowly visited in one of the opening scene setting sequences in which Yaya, the successful influencer (played by Charlbi Dean Kriek who passed away suddenly in August 2022), and her model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickenson) argue about who will pay for their meal in an upmarket restaurant. The urbane and world-weary couple have a passive-aggressive non-argument argument about their respective salary disparity and who should pay for what – surely a common enough early day couple conundrum, which they subsequently solve by way of some fairly unimaginative roleplay sex. So, that’s the gender equality issue put to, em, bed then.
There are a couple of scenes on the cusp of wit that are thwarted in quick succession by way of not being developed any further by being woven into the subsequent narrative. The jaded Captain Thomas White (played by Woody Harrelson) shuns the company of his rich employers at the coveted captain’s table and at one stage blasts the Internationale (we sang along) through the yachts’ PA system – supposedly the juxtaposition of the socialist anthem with the toffs at the trough was meant to be a hilariously incongruent coupling. From this, you wonder if the burnt-out captain’s socialist posturings might be an interesting foreshadowing. They are not.
In another scene, as the yacht veers into a raging storm (a foreboding sign don’t you know!) the captain and the Russian oligarch swap political quotes: the former quoting Twain, Marx and Lenin, and the latter Reagan and Thatcher. So committed are they to their politics that they have to look up their phones for quotes. “A Russian capitalist and an American communist on a $350 million yacht” they guffaw at each other across the fois gras. So, there’s the class disparity issue neatly wrapped up.
This mish-mash of false starts ends with a shipwreck on an unpopulated (or is it?) island, the result of a pirate attack following a circus display of designer-clad rich folk sliding around in their own storm-provoked effluent overflow (those pesky rich people get what they deserve, a hoot). Still with me?
This multi-award winning inconclusive odyssey, littered with unconvincing plot twists, serves neither as a critique nor as an analysis of neoliberal capitalism but may appeal to those whose heads remain politically ‘in den Wolken’.