The absurd lives of the uber-elite are ruthlessly skewered by filmmaker Ruben Östlund in Triangle of Sadness, which won the top prize Palme d’Or at this year’s film festival in Cannes before screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Östlund does not take risks with his choices for satire: his previous film The Square, which also won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, tackled modern art and social inequality, while Triangle of Sadness sends up the wealthy with a side dose of the fashion industry and Instagram influencers.
“Can you tone down your triangle of sadness?” a casting director asks model Carl (Harris Dickinson) in the film’s opening scene. The film’s title is a reference to the wrinkled area between the eyebrows that becomes pronounced with a frown; while mainstream fashion lines sell on happiness and elation, upscale brands are sold through smug self-seriousness.
Later on, Carl and girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who steals the show) have an extended argument over a restaurant check that feels like a sequence of observational humor lifted from Curb Your Enthusiasm. Yaya finally settles the matter with an unexpectedly candid reveal, but that is the last time genuine sincerity appears in the film.
The bulk of Triangle of Sadness is set aboard a luxury yacht where Carl and Yaya have scored a free trip thanks to their Instagram influencer status. Here, they are rare objects of beauty amidst a sea of grotesque wealth, mingling with uptight arms dealers, predatory business owners, and a slimy Russian fertilizer tycoon memorably portrayed by Zlatko Burić.
As the perpetually-drunk captain of the yacht, Woody Harrelson seems to play the only character in on the absurdity aboard the yacht; he quotes Karl Marx as his pitiful crew, led by a frazzled Paula (Vicki Berlin), painstakingly cater to the fruitless whims of their guests.
One elderly guest complains about some dirt on the sails, of which staff members repeatedly assure her that they’ll take care – until Harrelson’s captain tells her that, this being a motorized yacht, there are no sails.
In Triangle of Sadness’ showstopping sequence, the seafood at the captain’s dinner goes off after one guest requires the participation of kitchen staff in a swim-break. As the vessel rolls with the sea, its guests spew vomit and diarrhea – on-screen and explicitly – for what feels like a good fifteen minutes. But it’s not all that different to what these characters were spewing out before.
In The Square, director Östlund memorably took observant shots at the world of modern art in individual sequences featuring Terry Notary acting as a primate, Dominic West freaking out during a press conference, or the titular piece of art, which was simply the outline of a square painted on the ground.
In Triangle of Sadness, meanwhile, the entire film is not only a razor-sharp satire, but also laugh-out-loud funny, with a sense of observational humor that matches Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David. Scenes of modern-day life that other films would depict without insight are uncomfortably lingered upon to the point of provocation.
Only the final act of Triangle of Sadness lacks the bitter observational bite of the previous acts. As the characters find themselves on a desert island and their roles are reversed, they must adjust to a new social order. Diminutive Abigail (Dolly De Leon), armed with basic survival skills, is suddenly thrust to the forefront of the film after being invisible during the previous acts.
The desert island scenes feel a bit too on-the-nose compared to the more subtle storytelling of the rest of the film, and offer few surprises; a final gag, too, feels a bit predictable. Still, these scenes cannot sink the rest of Triangle of Sadness, which represents one of the best – and funniest – films of the year.
While Harrelson puts in some note-perfect work as the captain, South African actress and model Dean steals the show as a character who seems all too-aware of the world she inhabits, but does what she can to profit from it. Tragically, the actress died in August at the age of 29 just months after Triangle of Sadness’ Cannes premiere.