Dir: Ruben Östlund. Starring: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Dolly de Leon, Zlatko BuriÄ, Henrik Dorsin, Vicki Berlin, Woody Harrelson. 15, 147 minutes.
This year’s Palme d’Or winner, Triangle of Sadness, is a class satire atop a river of vomit and faeces. A handful of the ultra-rich – among them a tech bro, a grenade manufacturer, and a (literal) manure peddler – have sailed off on a luxury cruise aboard a $250m yacht. They expect a captain’s dinner, but the captain himself (Woody Harrelson’s Thomas Smith, effortlessly chaotic) has remained too drunk to make an appearance until the one day choppy seas are predicted. What happens next is a raging hurricane of bodily functions. A few spittles choked out quietly in the corners of the dining room build up to more thunderous chunks. The torrent calms, only for the guests to realise that the yacht’s plumbing is now unsalvageably backed up.
I’m happy to admit that I found all of the above – from the first upchuck to the last – completely hilarious. Writer-director Ruben Östlund’s modus operandi is, in short, to state familiar truths in the silliest, basest, and most confrontational of ways. He’s king of our own discomfort, pushing schadenfreude to such extremes that we start to feel a bit monstrous for laughing. Force Majeure (2014) featured a man ready to abandon his own family when his fight-or-flight response kicked in; The Square (2017) saw a room of wealthy art patrons willingly terrorised by a man pretending to be a chimpanzee.
But, that one already notorious sequence aside, Triangle of Sadness feels a little like gnashing at air. The targeted ideals of Östlund’s previous films, such as Force Majeure’s male fragility and The Square’s art-world pretension, felt specific and well-honed. In fact, they share much in common with Triangle of Sadness’s initial, strongest chapter. A couple – models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who died suddenly in August) – head out to dinner. When the bill arrives, Yaya barely flinches. She’d promised to pay yesterday and, clearly, this is some sort of ongoing charade of hers. Carl has reached his limit. They argue, ferociously. Dickinson and Dean’s taut but subtle performances craft wonderfully hypocritical characters. The pair are interlopers to massive wealth, neither being enormously rich themselves, and seem bewildered by the responsibility it entails. Carl, repeatedly, asks Yaya what he – as a self-proclaimed good guy – should do. She shrugs. It doesn’t seem like she cares.
Östlund views these two, and the rest of the yacht’s guests, as theoretically obsessed with surrendering their power. Carl and Yaya engage in sexual foreplay where she pretends to be the lady of the house, he the lucky pool boy. Vera (Sunnyi Melles), wife of the manure-wealthy Russian oligarch (Zlatko BuriÄ’s Dimitry), commands the crew to “reverse roles” with her. Dimitry and Captain Smith, a Marxist, debate their respective ideologies by launching quotations at each other. They find it funny. For them, there’s no real stake.
Triangle of Sadness, then, grants these people their idle wishes. In a surprise final act, the social hierarchy is upturned and the yacht’s Filipina “toilet manager” Abigail (Dolly de Leon, a highlight) finds herself at its apex. But the new norm simply becomes as exploitative as the old, which renders everything that happened before a touch pointless. Is this all Östlund really has to say? That we’re all as bad as each other, wherever we are in the pecking order, and that knowing what oppression feels like counts for nought? If so, it doesn’t feel like he’s risen that much above Captain Smith, trading shallow barbs with the same elite he’s happy to coddle.
‘Triangle of Sadness’ is in cinemas from 28 October