By Phedias Christodoulides
Having enjoyed Ruben Östlund’s two previous acclaimed satires (Force Majeure, The Square), I went to watch Triangle of Sadness with great expectations, especially given the fact that the film won the Palme D’Or, the most prestigious film award in the world. It is the film that the directors and critics at Cannes decided is the best film of the here, and it’s bad. It is a superficial, heavy-handed Eat-the-Rich satire whose tone is an over-the-top but unearned all-pervading cynicism about the world and the people who live in it. Östlund’s creates no likable characters and leaves no room for human potential before the dog-eat-dog world we live in. It is as if he is saying that we deserve the reality we live in, a conservative outlook if there ever was one.
The film’s title refers to the wrinkle of skin created between our eyebrows when we frown, eventually becoming permanent and making us look older. It is a problem for 25-year old male model Carl, as it is suggested in the beginning of the film that he is getting past his prime for modeling. The title may also be a reference to our unequal social hierarchy, the topic that the film supposedly explores; I’m not sure. In any case, Östlund pokes fun at the vapidity of the modeling world in the first few minutes of the film but departs from there fairly quickly, which is bad as the beginning is the best part of the film.
We are introduced to the film’s two most prominent characters, Carl and Yaya, models dealing with money problems. There is a very funny dinner scene between the two in which they bicker over who is to pay the bill, employing the deadpan humor Östlund used to be adept at. Both characters are petty and shallow: Carl’s primarily role in the relationship seems to be to increase Yaya’s social status by his own good looks and to take Instagram pictures of her. He is insecure and she is manipulative, tricking him into paying the bills while earning more than him. Both are ultimately petty, like most of the film’s other characters.
The film’s other characters are introduced in the film’s 2nd part, taking place on a very expensive yacht that used to belong to Greek billionaire Aristotelis Onassis. The yacht is taking a few super-rich people on a cruise, and Carl and Yaya managed to be on it for free in exchange for the social media exposure that ‘influencer’ Yaya can provide: for example, she poses with a forkful of pasta that she then refuses to eat because she is gluten intolerant. The couple’s beauty is thus a form of currency, a commodity, like everything else in the film.
I would have preferred Östlund delving deeper into Carl and Yaya’s characters and relationships, as surely there are layers and hidden motivations in even the more superficial people, or so I like to hope. Unfortunately, this does not happen as instead the couple becomes a merely equal part of a large cast of petty characters that populate the yacht. These characters are all dated caricatures of super-rich people. You have the Russian oligarch that got rich in the 90s through a corrupt business of selling fertilizer (which he calls “selling shit”), an old British couple of arm dealers who introduce themselves as in the business of upholding democracy, a beta male who tries to pick up pretty women by telling them directly how filthy rich he is, and so on. There is also a woman handicapped by a stroke, whose handicap is exploited for cheap laughs that I did not appreciate.
The satire in this part of the film makes for some great laughs (I laughed hard at multiple points) but is ultimately shallow. The rich are portrayed as oblivious of their privilege to an unrealistic extent, their antics so over-the-top that they eventually amount to meme material. For example, a person has a supply of Nutella delivered by helicopter while another orders the whole crew for a swim, thinking she is being generous while she is just assuaging her unconscious guilt about her wealth. The crew for its part is instructed to satisfy every single whim of the rich in exchange for bonuses at the end of the cruise; in a scene reminiscent of The Wolf of Wall Street they are shown to have the same values as the rich, namely, money-making, chanting “money, money, money!” in unison. This part of the film is episodic and increasingly over-the-top, making constant comic jabs at the obliviousness and capriciousness of the rich, but the jabs are mostly juvenile. The rich people we see are the worst possible stereotype of a rich person, not representative of the more socially-aware and sophisticated rich people of today. Not all the rich are vulgar and extravagant like Trump. (For a nuanced exploration and takedown of the rich’s mentality, check most of Bunuel’s films or Ceylan’s superlative Winter Sleep, a much more worthy Palme D’Or Winner).
The yacht part of the film culminates in a dinner scene that devolves into vomiting and diarrhea for almost anyone involved, leaving the alcoholic self-professing Marxist captain in a game of words with the Russian fertilizer tycoon. The two superficially debate socialism vs capitalism using famous slogans and references from Reagan, Thatcher, Marx, Chomsky, and even the forgotten Eugene Debs, the greatest socialist leader America ever had. The shallowness of the conversation may be a reflection of the degraded nature of contemporary political discourse, but in the context of the film it just suggests the lack of depth in Östlund’s takedown of the rich. He cannot move beyond mockery to any kind of substantive critique and has no insights about the root of our social malaise and narcissistic behavior. The vomiting is funny but not narratively well-motivated; Östlund seems to simply want to humiliate the rich, implying that these people are worth shit and deserve shit, which they get in huge doses. It is memorable, but not really much more substantial than the juvenile scatological humor of Everybody Everything All at Once. As a critic rightly noted, “you cannot criticize shallowness with shallowness”, but this is exactly what Östlund is doing here.
And then begins the least interesting part of the film, the most unmotivated and one with next to no laughs. For unclear reasons, the ship explodes and a few of the passengers are shipwrecked on a deserted beach. There, the power structure rearranges itself, as the rich realize that money is useless in a setting that calls for survival skills. A Filipina toilet clearer called Abigail, the lowest in the yacht hierarchy, assumes the role of leader as the only person in the group that can fish and light a fire. She is authoritarian and exchanges food for sexual favors from Carl, enraging Yaya. As Abigail is a new character we barely glimpsed before, she is yet another stereotype, this time standing in for the poor and downtrodden of the world. The implication here is that the oppressed are not any better than their oppressors, and would do the same as the latter if they could. This is largely true since we are products of and conditioned by the dog-eat-dog society we live in, but that does not mean that change is not possible, which is what Östlund cynically suggests. People can be motivated by self-interest to change the world for the better, as it is in their actual interest to do so, and better social conditions will also lead to better human beings as our psychology and behavior is to a large part conditioned by society.
All in all, Östlund has nothing more to say than that the rich are bad, and that perhaps the poor are not any better. Bunuel suggested as much in Viridiana but with way more insight and nuance into characters and social relations. Östlund is content to remain at the level of juvenile fun, taking cheap shots at wealth and privilege. He tells us nothing that we do not already know and believe, merely inviting us to laugh with him and feel good because we are better than the people shown on screen. This is a major shortcoming as art is meant to challenge our preconceptions and reveal or clarify truths about the world we live in. I won’t discuss the ending: suffice to say that it is abrupt and that we hardly care what happens to these people by the end of the film.
Early in the film, we see a modeling show where the models walk in front of a screen saying in huge bold letters “Cynicism masquerading as optimism”. A better summary of the film would be: “shallow cynicism masquerading as social criticism”.