Ruben Östlund’s satire on the ruling class takes us on a luxury cruise headed for disaster.
Satire is hard to do well. But Swedish director Ruben Östlund has proven to be a deft practitioner of the satiric art. His breakthrough fifth feature, 2014’s Force Majeure, poked fun at modern middle class illusions concerning masculinity and the family. The Square, from 2017, took aim at modern art and its uncomfortable relationship to politics. Now he’s broadened his range to satirize the ruling class itself, the wealthy elites that are ostensibly in charge of our world, in his latest film, Triangle of Sadness.
The film begins with two beautiful people, a fashion model couple, Carl and Yaya, played by Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean. Now, the movie’s silly title comes from a throwaway comment made to Carl when he’s auditioning for a modeling gig: “Can you do something about that triangle of sadness between your eyebrows?” referring to the tight skin in that area resulting from certain kinds of plastic surgery. The film’s first part concerns the tense relationship between these two. Carl gets upset when Yaya clearly expects him to pay the tab for an expensive dinner when she had previously offered to pay. The bruised feelings around money reflect one of the movie’s overall themes: the way money determines behavior within an affluent society that is based on prestige and power over others.
The movie’s second part plunges us, as it were, into Östlund’s main comic set piece. Yaya is an online influencer as well as a model, and this results in her being gifted with two free tickets on a Mediterranean luxury cruise with an assortment of super-rich passengers. The wealthy people are profoundly self-centered, and we see the yacht staff being instructed how to avoid ever saying “No” to their requests or demands, a detail which becomes very instructive. The captain, who has apparently locked himself in his cabin on a massive bender, and who has to be cajoled to come meet his passengers at dinner, is played with infectious glee by Woody Harrelson. The ship eventually runs into a violent storm that causes an outbreak of seasickness among the passengers. Now I must caution you that there is a long sequence of explicit vomiting, almost as if to satisfy our frustrated wish for justice. I laughed uproariously, but if puking is hard for you to watch, I am giving you advance notice.
About halfway through the picture, it dawned on me that the film’s central metaphor is almost absurdly obvious. The luxury yacht represents the world economy, and if you think that’s too “on the nose,” I imagine that Östlund considered this also, but then—given the perilous state of things in our time, decided “So what? Let’s be obvious.” The fact that the ship’s captain is a drunken American, albeit one that’s given to flirting with Marxist rhetoric while sparring with one of the more smug millionaires on board, is only one of many wonderfully crazy details that gets filled in as we go along.
In Part Three of the film, however, we go beyond this level of parody, this jeering at the spectacle of the 1%. I won’t spoil it for you, but I will say that we are confronted with the much deeper issue of how power over other people ends up distorting our conscience, reason, and well-being, no matter what social class we may belong to. Some have bristled at Östlund’s satiric methods, but I think that Triangle of Sadness has a powerful unspoken premise—that our world is in the middle of an emergency, and that perhaps we need a shocking dose of laughter just to wake us up.