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Triangle of Sadness

Updated: Dec 30, 2023

Released 2022. Director: Ruben Ostlund

THE TRIANGLE OF SADNESS, as a character in the movie explains, is the area between your eyebrows where frown lines show. Don't mistake this for a sad movie in the conventional way. Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's English language debut is more along the line of “tsk tsk, these people are so sad” as in pathetic, pitiful because they are narcissistic, shallow, petty and wasteful.

The movie is divided neatly into three parts and our guides are fashion model Carl (Harris Dickinson) and his influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean). In the first part, Carl is upset he’s always paying while Yaya conveniently looks away every time a bill arrives at the table. They argue and make up but the ugly shadow of money will rise again later in the story.

The second part introduces us to the guests on a luxury yacht where Yaya and Carl have scored an all-expense-paid holiday as one of her perks. The celebrity wannabes rub shoulders with an assortment of members of the super-rich, including an elderly weapons-manufacturing couple who pride themselves on upholding democracy, a software developer who wears his loneliness on his sleeves and a Russian oligarch who made his fortune in fertiliser, or as he cheerfully tells people, “I sell shit.”

Part three takes us to a desert island after the yacht capsizes. Those who manage to escape wash up on a beach where being wealthy is completely useless. The social hierarchy shifts and power dynamics play havoc with the small group of desperate survivors.

Triangle of Sadness is a satire and a black comedy. There isn’t really any likeable characters, not even Carl, who complains about a shirtless crew member who smiles at Yaya, and unwittingly gets him fired. It'd appear that even those without money, when mingling with those who do, feel they’re above people who work in service and are entitled to act superior.

One guest keeps asking for the dirty sails to be cleaned, even though this yacht has no sails. Another guest insists that all staff onboard must stop work and take a swim – “I command you, enjoy this moment!” – and they duly obey. In an earlier scene we see the crew being instructed to cater to every whim and fancy however absurd or even illegal. A big fat tip is what they hope for. You know you’re going to see the crew bend over backwards to pamper their guests in some comical fashion if it wasn’t so… sad. Even among this working class citizenry there’s a clear division. The stewards are white whereas the maintenance and janitorial staff hidden away in the bowels of the yacht are brown or black.

Although the movie doesn’t treat these characters cruelly, Ostlund pulls no punches in making fun of them. As the guests settle down for a posh dinner dressed in their finest, wild weather rocks the yacht like a cradle. The combination of seasickness and contaminated ingredients promptly brings on an outbreak of stomach cleansing even as some guests keep downing champagne assuming it’d hold back the projectile that’s lurching forward. Instagrammable fine dining snaps are quickly overtaken by streams of puke. Shot after shot of vomiting are simultaneously shocking, gross and hilarious. Ostlund is relentless in this extended sequence, tossing out a gastro nightmare with giddy delight. What makes the emergency worse and comical is the Captain (Woody Harrelson, in a short appearance for name-check purposes) drinking whisky and quoting Mark Twain and Karl Marx while his crew are frantically trying to keep the slippery situation under control. Backflow from blocked toilets flood the cabins and down the hallways and the uber-wealthy splosh in their own filth. It’s a good thing we can’t smell the movie.

Ostlund keeps a tight rein on the tone, helped to a large degree by the carefully pitched performances that nimbly sidestep caricaturising. By the time we reach the ‘Survivor’-style endurance test on the island, we expect principles will be compromised but it’s no surprise that human nature is examined in an ironic way. Consider how self-righteous Carl feels initially when he frowns at Yaya for flirting with a crew, and then he ends up gladly prostituting himself for food and shelter. Not even good food, pretzel sticks.

The final few minutes carry a whiff of Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite, when an act of murderous violence arises from so much repressed rage that cuts across social classes. Faced with a chance to save herself and everyone else, Abigail, the toilet manager of the yacht decides instead to reject rescue with the most decisive way possible. It’s more appealing to remain queen of a shipwreck island than returning to civilisation and clean up rich people’s shit. The real sadness, as it turns out, is a consequence of inequality.

Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.


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