“I am more interested in when we are failing. I’m interested in sins, where we don’t live up to the idea of what it is to be a good human being.”
“When the ship goes down, so too do the first class passengers.”
―Amadeo Bordiga, Weird and Wonderful Tales of Modern Social Decadence
The titular triangle in this year’s Palme d’Or-winning film contains a multitude of references. It recalls a turn of the century Belgian Labour Party cartoon depicting the hierarchy of the powerful, one that needs to be overturned. The triangle of sadness is what plastic surgeons call the skin between your eyebrows where botox is typically injected. The image conjured by this is a literal manifestation of director Ruben Östlund’s attestment that all his films are about “people trying to avoid losing face.”
The Swedish filmmaker’s previous works demonstrate this maxim. Force Majeure (2014) depicts a father’s cowardness amidst a freak avalanche. The Square (2017) follows the crises of an art curator at a distinguished Swedish museum as he attempts to set up a controversial exhibit. Indeed, Östlund’s films are about turning conventional expectations and assumptions on their head, whether it’s fatherhood or the rarefied high-art world. With Triangle of Sadness (2022), the hierarchies of beauty and their relation to asset-backed power take centre stage. The film, a sharp mix of social satire and black comedy, is set onboard a luxury cruise. Östlund goes about blowing up the superyacht his characters inhabit, and seeing what (and who) falls overboard.
The film is split into three acts. The first introduces us to Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek). Both work as models in the fashion industry. At a runway show where Yaya is working, buzzwords flash in the background. Östlund portrays a heavy disconnect between the trends that “ethical” fashion brands exploit and the realities baked into the supply-chain model producing the overpriced garments they sell. This messaging recalls attempts made by luxury brands to take up the mantle of ‘sustainability’ despite playing a direct role in advancing labour exploitation and global warming. Take for example this passage from a Luxury London article analyzing the supposedly eco-friendly side of superyachts: “Today’s superyacht owners are younger, and more in tune with the climate crisis around us.” This line best captures the superficiality that Östlund plays with throughout the film.
The second act is set entirely aboard the luxury yacht. This choice of scenery is intentional: ships and seafaring are and have been an integral part of the culture of the upper classes for centuries. Whether it’s through the second sons of gentry who become naval captains or the ocean trade routes and fleets that have made men magnates, superyachts, as a part of this continuum, have garnered a certain notoriety. Their fuel consumption spits on the efforts of climate activists the world over, not to mention the absurdity of these vessels against the backdrop of an ever-expanding cost of living crisis. They symbolize wealth and power, and perhaps more bitterly, the disparity thereof. Östlund sees them as a perfect target for detonation.
We are soon introduced to a coterie of wealthy passengers like the polite elderly British couple that describe themselves as upholders of democracy around the world (they turn out to be weapons manufacturers). Perhaps the most entertaining character is the wiry-haired Russian fertilizer magnate, Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), who tells Carl and Yaya that he “sells shit” for a living.
One of the film’s funniest scenes arrives when Dimitry’s wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles) commands the entire crew of the ship to go swimming in the onboard pool. This role reversal—taking “the customer is always right” to new extremes—is exemplary of the film’s themes of inversion. There is a delicious irony in seeing the ship’s staff quit their breaks to satiate the whims of a single passengers and perform “leisure” for her. Östlund is at his best when satirizing the ridiculous requests and abuses of power by the wealthy passengers as the crew try their best to politely say no when demands go against their interests.
The crew are not free from criticism in Östlund’s film, either. The head of staff, Paula (Vicki Berlin) is overly eager to please her guests. At one point, she leads a chant during which she and her crew members stomp and scream at the possibility of getting bigger tips. Most of the service crew is depicted as giddy middle managers scrounging for any extra money they can get. It is not enough to simply work and do as you are told—you must also pretend to desire this work.
The disheveled captain, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), stands apart from the crew in this vein. He is an alcoholic Marxist plagued by guilt for his proximity to the ultra rich. In one scene he declares, “I’m a shit socialist, because I have too much. I have too much abundance in my life. I’m not a worthy socialist.”
For the most part, Captain Smith hides away in his cabin listening to “The Internationale” at maximum volume while ignoring the crew’s calls for help. Ultimately, one could argue, Harrelson’s character can be read as an allegory for the ineffectiveness of the left to take on the billionaire class.
When Smith finally makes himself known to the passengers it is for the long delayed captain’s dinner, the film’s most outrageous scene. While a raging storm rocks the boat, nearly everyone on board succumbs to seasickness, triggering a 15-minute vomit sequence.
In an interview with thrillist, Östlund remarks on the kind of torment he wanted to inflict on the characters:
We had a good Michelin chef preparing the food for us… So we said, ‘Okay, we want you to make the dishes in a way that would be, What would be the most horrible dish if it came on a plate in front of you and you’re sitting and dealing with seasickness?’ And he was like, ‘Okay, now I know what the target is. No problem!’
This reckoning is doubtless satisfying at first. Seeing the passenger’s composure and poise slowly crack makes for a humorous sequence, but Östlund pushes the envelope. What begins as a short bout of nausea explodes into a grotesque deluge of puke and excrement. The gross-out scene reaches such a point that you start to share the characters’ nausea and grow uncomfortable in the face the decrepitude.
The American communist captain and the Russian capitalist oligarch are the only ones who seem to avoid the sickness. Amidst the chaos they imbibe the captain’s personal stash of alcohol and recite quotes to each other off their phones, rather than help the passengers. Locked away in the captain’s quarters they take turns on the intercom either making fake May Day announcements or reading passages by Noam Chomsky.
The film’s final act flips the hierarchy of the ship. The relationship between the wealthy passengers, the managers, and the largely non-white crew are dissolved as the ship explodes and the survivors find themselves on a deserted island. Here we are formally introduced to Abigail (Dolly de Leon), a Filipino maid who becomes the most capable of the survivors. No one else knows how to start a fire or catch and gut a fish. Here, the ineptitude of the wealthy and their servants are thrust to the fore. Abigail asserts dominance over her old boss and rewards anyone who will recognize her newfound supremacy. Dimitry hilariously asks if Abigail is familiar with the phrase “To each according to their needs, from each according to their ability.” Abigail has never heard of it.
Triangle of Sadness mostly succeeds as a satire of the lives of the uber-wealthy. Östlund has stated that his main goal was always to elicit conversations about income inequality and beauty but the director is more akin to the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland, calling at random for people to switch places at the dinner table.
If you’ll permit me a tangent, role reversals have a long history that I’ve mentioned in passing, but given their prominence in the film they deserve further interrogation. Role reversals function as a tiny reprieve given to the have-nots amidst times of plenty. Their logic is similar to that of charity food or meals. There is such a surplus of food (or in the case of this film, power) that enough is available to parcel out to the underprivileged. Ancient Romans and Greeks practiced role reversals between masters and slaves during Winter Solstice celebrations when power was decidedly as plentiful as the food. Yet these instances where power is flipped on its head are purely temporary, a fleeting moment of voluntary charity meant more for entertainment or as a moral reminder.
With this in mind, the success of Triangle of Sadness at Cannes and other institutions of wealthy artists and their patrons becomes more apparent. Role reversals are a lesson by and for those with power and wealth. “Be better to the underclass, not for them but for your own safety,” is the takeaway.
The progenitor of the castaway genre, Robinson Crusoe, contains a passage that best illustrates the kind of didacticism Daniel Defoe was known for:
It put me upon reflecting how little repining there would be among mankind at any condition of life, if people would rather compare their condition with those that were worse, in order to be thankful, than be always comparing them with those which are better, to assist their murmurings and complaining.
Östlund is playing with all the right and relevant pieces and themes. The film is brimming with great moments, but it also lacks sharpness in its commentary. Triangle of Sadness is a caricature of the wealthy—and a decent one at that—but caricatures seldom offer much more than entertainment.
Despite these shortcomings the film is thought-provoking and ends on a strong note. Östlund is able to condense all the themes and ideas he’s played with into an open-ended finale, and he avoids pigeonholing himself by summarizing the discord he’s depicted.
At the end of the film Abigail and Yaya come across an elevator leading back to the world of the audience, back to the real world. Yaya tells Abigail that she can help her on the outside by hiring her as an assistant. Abigail holds a jagged rock and stares at the back of Yaya’s head. We are not shown the decision she makes on the verge of tears. Instead we are called to think on the question: would she have done it? Did having power corrupt her? Would she have put down the rock, become an assistant to Yaya, and return to subservience?
Kalden Dhatsenpa is a Tibetan writer and artist based in Tio‘tià:ke, or Mooniyang, or Montréal, and a member of the Canadian Dimension editorial board. He is the host of the film podcast Cheapy Tuesdays, and a former federal candidate for the NDP in Longueuil—Charles-Lemoyne.