Ruben Östlund’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner Triangle of Sadness is a film told in three distinct parts, labeled with helpful onscreen titles, and the first part is as good as anything he’s ever done – and a perfect encapsulation of what he does well. His subjects are Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who are young and beautiful, model-slash-influencers who are apparently doing quite well in that space – or at least, she is. He’s been struggling a bit, as we see at a “runway casting” scene that explores the silliness of auditioning to walk (which as you’d expect, is considerable).
So they’re out to dinner, an expensive one at a posh restaurant, and the waiter drops the check, and neither of them, at least initially, pick it up. What follows is an interaction so perfectly observed and executed that it’s sort of breathtaking – not just what they do, and what they say, and the responses those actions and words provoke, but how all of those details are then revisited and scrutinized, broken apart and reassembled, every wound carefully closed and then savagely reopened. It’s like a perfectly realized little short film.
Of course, this is Östlund’s stock-in-trade, feeling very much of a piece with the strained social interactions and awkward misconnections of his previous Palme winner The Square and especially his breakthrough film, Force Majeure. And because it’s so directly in his wheelhouse, it’s easy to understand why he takes that material as merely a starting point for Triangle, and attempts to broaden his scope considerably. It doesn’t always work, but you get what he’s going for.
Carl and Yaya are also fairly prominent in the two sections that follow, though more part of an ensemble. The second part, “THE YACHT,” finds them on a luxury cruise, two of a handful of ultra-rich passengers; their fellow travelers include a Russian agriculture magnate (“You can call me the King of Shit,” he roars, of his fortune made in fertilizers) and a kindly, retirement-age British couple who turn out to be munitions manufacturers (“Our best-selling product is the hand grenade,” one chuckles cheerfully).
Such stories of extravagance frequently go the upstairs-downstairs route, contrasting the wealthy and those who serve them. Östlund goes a step further, exploring the divisions even within the ship’s working class; the cleaners and cooks and engineers, hardly seen, are all people of color, while the smiling on-deck crew that fetches drinks and attends to the immediate needs are lily-white (Nordic, even). Much tension is found in the slow, steady escalation of their interactions with the guests, because the crew’s prime directive is to accept whatever nonsense whims they’re presented with.
All of which leads us to the big set piece, the much-ballyhooed “Captain’s Dinner,” though the Captain (Woody Harrelson, priceless) has spent most of the week in his cabin getting hammered. Unfortunately, the Captain’s Dinner coincides with a brewing and then violent storm at sea, as rattling dishes and distant thunder give way to projectile vomiting and exploding toilets. The crew keeps going (“More wine, sir?”) and so does Östlund, who does not cut away from the cacophony of crashing plates and bodily fluids, and makes a point to include, at its conclusion, the women cleaning the dining room and scrubbing the vomit from the floors. Some of the humor is cheap and juvenile; some of it is cruel and brutalist. And that’s the point. It’s very satisfying.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that the ship does, in fact, go down, as bit of the third part (“THE ISLAND”) appear in the trailer; its central conceit is that most of the crew perishes, but the one who does not, Abigail the toilet manager (Dolly De Leon) turns out to be the only survivor with any of the skills required to survive on an island, and this knowledge makes her feel, understandably, like maybe she’s not an “employee” anymore. And when it comes time to divvy up the fish she’s cooked on the fire she’s made, suddenly all these capitalists are socialists. (It’s one of these weird contemporary movies where somehow COVID didn’t happen/isn’t still happening, but there’s pointed commentary here about those early days of the pandemic, and who exactly turned out to be “essential” workers.)
As is his style, Östlund traffics in crisp, pointed compositions; he doesn’t move the camera much, so when he does, it matters. His visual approach is utilitarian; his movies look right, but how they look is not as important as what they say. And though he’s working on a broader canvas this time around, his M.O. is the same: in scene after scene, in one carefully controlled conflict after another, he forces us (and I do mean forces us) to examine our own biases and assumptions. Who are you sympathetic with in these conflicts? And why?
He only really steps wrong once, but it’s a doozy. As the ship is getting knocked about (and the passengers’ digestive systems with it), the captain, who is a pronounced Marxist, and the Russian capitalist get blackout drunk and argue about their economics and politics, first at each other and then over the ship’s P.A. system. It’s a long and unsuccessful stretch, cringe-worthy even, because Östlund’s ill-advised insistence on slapping explicit political commentary on top of his farcical but heavy metaphors is a bit of a hat on a hat. It’s rhetorical overkill – or worse, it means he doesn’t think his audience is smart enough, so he has to spell it out. He’s a better satirist than a commentator, in other words. But we already knew that.
“Triangle of Sadness” is in theaters Friday.