In Ruben Östlund’s latest overblown, satirical romp, Triangle of Sadness (2022), there is a wealthy German stroke survivor whose only words of communication are “in der wolken” (translated: in the clouds). It’s a phrase she yells out countlessly across the film to the point where it wouldn’t be surprising if it pops its head in like an M. Night Shyamalan twist at the film’s close. It never does though, but it perfectly captures the underlying message behind Östlund’s rich ripping, caste crushing film — the wealthy just love to live in the clouds, out of touch with reality, no matter how dire a situation can get.
While most of the rich folk in this film are overblown caricatures that breach the threshold of excessiveness, for Östlund, excessiveness is the name of the game. Structuring his film into three chapters (three edges that make up a “Triangle of Sadness”, if you will), Östlund takes aim at the false pretences that the wealthy hide behind — fancy yachts, material goods like Rolex watches, and cosmetic procedures among other things — and bares them for viewers in all their grotesqueness. It’s nothing that hasn’t been depicted throughout cinema history in the past (2013’s The Great Gatsby and The Wolf of Wall Street come to mind from recent films), but Östlund isn’t privy to subtlety, rather, he’s going all in until you’re either exhausted, squeamish, or both.
Where there is beauty, there is deceit — at least that’s part of the message that underpins Triangle of Sadness. Set on a luxurious yacht for the most part, the film is comprised of a solid ensemble that plays seamlessly off of Östlund’s material and each other. It’s Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) and Carl (Harris Dickinson), two models and partners-with-benefits, that serve as the entry point into the mayhem that ensues. Both characters skimp by on their looks, and it’s part of the reason they find themselves in the company of millionaires and billionaires on the aforementioned yacht as Yaya is gifted a free trip courtesy of her influencer status.
On the ship we find a bunch of rich folk and everyone in-between including the ship’s crew. There’s a British couple who boast about their contribution to the munitions industry including their role in creating land mines and hand grenades (which Östlund returns to in explosive fashion); a down-on-his-luck code-seller whose partner didn’t join him on the cruise; the vessel’s drunk captain (Woody Harrelson); a Russian billionaire who made his money selling manure; and the chief stew of the ship, among others.
Each character has a role to play in Östlund’s charade as events spiral from controlled to chaotic in an instant. He rocks the boat to the point where characters are literally spewing their guts out (of both ends) after a slimy buffet and storm, he throws in a pirate attack at one point, and in the third act he leaves some characters stranded on an island where he flips the hierarchical triangle on its head.
There’s a lot happening in Triangle of Sadness to the point where you can feel the lengthy runtime weighing proceedings down. This is undoubtedly a conscious choice on Östlund’s part as he leans into the satire he is going for to create an equally exhausting experience for his characters (especially in that third act).
At times it feels like his screenplay is made up of a bunch of short films or mini sketches that have just been welded together. There’s a scene involving the yacht’s captain and the rich Russian Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) as they indulge in a Marxist and capitalist back-and-forth while playing a drinking game that they continue in the captains quarters over the yacht’s PA system. There’s also a sexploitation sequence on the island portion of the film where the yacht’s Toilet Manager pays Carl for his services with pretzel sticks and shelter. All of these sequences are comical, but there’s never greater substance or deeper subliminal messaging beyond the superficiality of being rich and the vanity of these characters.
Triangle of Sadness is at its best during its first half, where it plays around with ideas of inadequacy and superficiality at a more measured level. The longer the film chugs on though, the more it tailspins into a cartoonish satire that trades subtlety for unhinged chaos, where you’re fed what you know and nothing more.
Triangle of Sadness hits Australian cinemas in late December.