Ruben Östlund’s previous two films, The Square and Force Majeure, do one thing with effective idiosyncrasy, and that is to showcase and revel in the profoundly uncomfortable and awkward. Force Majeure centers its entire action around such an uncomfortable premise: what if you abandoned your family in a moment of crisis, only to realize too late that the crisis was no crisis at all? The Square, meanwhile, adds a leaden layer of class commentary to the mix, pessimistically pointing a mocking finger at the literati of the art world.
Triangle of Sadness, Östlund’s latest, does not fall far from this tree. In fact, at most turns in the plot he doubles down on the class mockery and cringe-worthy awkwardness. Early in the film, a lengthy conversation between the ostensible leads Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) regarding picking up the dinner bill carries over from scene to scene. The minor moment is stretched to a length at which the banality transforms into absurdity.
This is the tonal register of Sadness. Carl and Yaya, a couple whose relationship is more or less a PR stunt to net them both more followers in their respective influencer hustles, embark on a yacht vacation. From here, the narrative balloons into an ensemble affair, with a series of colorful wealthy characters populating the ship and proving a nuisance to the crew (who are instructed to do whatever the guests ask of them, to occasionally disastrous results).
Quickly, the film becomes something of a perverted comedy of manners — if we want to be generous, this middle act could be considered The Rules of the Game with more violent regurgitation. The wealthy patrons of the ship exhibit a sheer obliviousness to their own hubris and class ignorance, which yields plenty of discomfort, ugliness, and cringe comedy. Often, Östlund’s intended effect is achieved. If Östlund’s intended effect is a facial contortion that melds grimacing with laughter.
The film’s centerpiece, a prolonged sequence of shellfish and seasickness that culminates in a sloshing, sliding, bodily mess and a spontaneous change in setting, is Östlund’s most audacious set piece to date. It is also the clearest signpost for what the director is going for with his films. It is not subtlety, that is for certain. Östlund’s brand of satirical farce is brash and, in large part, surface level. With The Square, this bothered me. But here, by using an approach that includes everything plus the kitchen sink, the absurdity is dialed up to a pitch that sings a hilariously grotesque tune.
Once this wild sequence ends, the final act levels out to a more somber examination, where the class divisions are rendered moot in favor of a de facto socialist dictatorship. This final third holds the most potential for potent class satire, but it does not jibe perfectly with the obnoxious and opaque satire that has come before. While I am not put off by the blunt-edged commentary, the radical shift into the third act does not add to this commentary so much as it continues to swim in the same themes. On the other hand, the emergence of Dolly de Leon in this final act makes it all worthwhile to some degree.
Triangle of Sadness ultimately stumbles to bring its triptych structure together into a cohesive whole. The first act’s endless conversation on the decorum and expectations surrounding a dinner tab is Östlund doing what he has done so well before. The characters in this discussion then fall into the middleground during the extravagant class tensions of the final two acts, where ideas continue to be offered up only to be drowned out by the next. It’s all good fun, but I strain to thread together a meaningful takeaway beyond the obvious. Östlund wants the rich to live in their own filth. Literally.
Triangle of Sadness: B
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