Bleak, beautiful, and brilliantly vile, Gemma Creagh throws shapes at Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness.
What is the currency of beauty? Much like in his earlier works, Östlund explores the intricacies of gender roles and status in his Palme d’Or winning Triangle of Sadness.
The film begins as a presenter interviews a wall of attractive young male models. He asks them to smile broadly like they’re representing a cheap brand like H&M, then to look down their nose at consumers like they were wearing Balenciaga… this back and forth continues for a beat too long, languishing in awkwardness and setting the tone for the film perfectly. It’s only when he enters the audition room, it’s clear our protagonist is Carl (Harris Dickinson), an attractive young man whose brightest years are behind him already. As he stands in front of the designers, topless and vulnerable, they discuss botoxing his “Triangle of Sadness” – that patch of skin between the eyebrows.
After his day of rejection, Carl has a run-in with his girlfriend. Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a beautiful influencer does everything she can – from ego stroking to gaslighting – to avoid covering the bill at a pricey restaurant. As the discussion turns to money – Carl clarifies that in this industry she makes much more than him, yet their relationship struggles under these restrictive gender roles. He insists she’s a bad feminist, furious at the injustice of it all. This is the first of many points made overtly, then explored through the dynamics of the characters.
When Yaya and Carl wake up on a luxury super yacht cruise, one policed by guards with machine guns, the class structures are physically clear. The boat is a haven for the super wealthy. On the upper decks, the arms dealers, oligarchs and tech entrepreneurs drink champagne, served by the stressed English-speaking staff, and under this again is the Filipino crew. Carl and Yaya are the only people on board who haven’t paid dearly. It’s clear from Ruben Östlund’s detours, his exploration of the ships systems, multithreaded narrative, that despite the luxury setting, that hollywood sensibilities aren’t on the menu.
It’s at a dinner, reluctantly hosted by closet marxist Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), where the mask of civilisation drops. A storm is brewing and the guests, still drunk, eat jiggling, grotesque high cuisine – food the kitchen staff warned would go bad when tending to the whims of an obscenely rich Russian. As the ship hits rough waters, these designer clad guests shit and vomit on the opulence of the cruiser – an unforgettable series of grotesque scenes captured in vivid detail. As the night devolves, the drunken Captain reads socialists texts over the intercom. As Pirates flank the outside of the ship, they throw a grenade onto the deck – one of the guest’s own products. In the wake of the wreckage, a new society structure is formed.
The humour, the lines, the setups are darkly brilliant. Yet it’s clear from his overuse of expositional dialogue and constant explicit narration, Östlund doesn’t trust the viewer to “get it”. In fact, this film is as subtle as a smack with a fish, in a good way. Shirking any of the more subtle dynamics of Force Majeure, this is a cold observation of the human condition, but told with such consistent originality, that the runtime is almost justified.
Triangle of Sadness is in cinemas 28th October 2022.