Swedish filmmaker Ruben Östlund makes his English-language debut with Triangle of Sadness, a black comedy/satire and this year’s Palme d’Or winner at the Cannes Film Festival. Östlund, who writes and directs Triangle, has a knack for social observation and class satire, as demonstrated in his previous films such as The Square, which won the Palme d’Or in 2017, and Force Majeure, a brutal sneak-attack of a film about gender roles and modern manhood. Triangle of Sadness finds him on familiar ground, satirizing the rich in his most outright funny film yet. Split into three “chapters”, Triangle follows models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who sadly passed away in August) as they leverage their way into a luxury vacation that turns into a nightmare.
Carl and Yaya are Professionally Beautiful People, so beautiful it buys them entry into the exclusive world of the wealthy, though they themselves are broke. Carl, despite fronting a designer fragrance campaign, is going out on open auditions and already being considered for Botox, and Yaya is a model and influencer who uses her social media following to get free stuff. They quibble over who pays the bill, and however much Carl fronts like it’s because he wants them to be “equals”, it’s really because they’re both broke, and he can’t afford a fancy dinner any more than she can. Everything about their lives is a shallow lie, including their relationship, which is more about upping their follower counts than genuine affection. But they’re in it to win it, and they go on a luxury cruise Yaya’s influencer status secures them.
While I VASTLY appreciate that Triangle is not only anti-wealth hoarding but also anti-cruise, the balance of storytelling is off. At 149 minutes run-time, Triangle is actually two minutes shorter than The Square, but it feels longer because of this imbalance. The tricky thing is, though, that where you would cut the narrative dead weight depends entirely on which elements of the film most appeal to you. Some might cut from the yacht chapter, others from the opening chapter in which Carl and Yaya do nothing but argue. Probably no one would cut from the third chapter, set on a “deserted” island, but somewhere there is a problem in this script that Östlund never quite solves. Triangle feels long and at times drags on, though it’s never painful to watch, given how good the performances are across the board. Dickinson and Dean are stellar as the shallow, thirsty Carl and Yaya, Woody Harrelson is brilliantly bleak in a small role as a depressed ship captain, Zlatko Burić is hilarious as a crass Russian oligarch, and Filipina actor Dolly de Leon is outstanding as a “toilet manager” named Abigail.
But though Triangle is stuffed full of funny moments and superb performances, that nagging narrative incompleteness persists. The underpinning of Triangle is simply not as strong as Östlund’s previous films. His wit is sharp as ever, but his observations are shallow—“rich people bad, cruises also bad” is as deep as Triangle goes. The social critique within the satire is limited to Twitter-level ideas about wealth and the wealthy, as if “wouldn’t it be funny if a luxury yacht vacation turned into a poop cruise” is a searing thesis statement and not a meme in waiting. Yes, it would be funny, and the extended poop-and-puke gags in the middle of the film are very funny—and SUPER gross—but that’s not a narrative strong enough to support of a film of this length. Thank the gods, then, for all those terrific performances elevating the material.
Östlund’s previous films, especially Force Majeure, have stuck with me for years, but Triangle is slight in comparison. It has its joys, in the great acting, in that epic gross out sequence, but it feels disposable in a way his other works don’t. It’s as if Carl and Yaya’s shallowness infected Östlund, and style won out over substance. It’s not a bad film, just a not-as-good film, from a filmmaker who has done better work—sharper satire, more scathing critique—elsewhere. Triangle of Sadness is a comparatively minor entry into Östlund’s oeuvre of anti-capitalist works, but it is his funniest and most accessible film to date. And the performances are really, REALLY good. That’s reason enough to watch Triangle of Sadness, even if it doesn’t make as deep a mark as Force Majeure. That, and rich people sh-tting themselves for like fifteen minutes straight.
Triangle of Sadness is in theaters from October 7, 2022.