By Marja Koos
Boston University News Service
Director Ruben Ӧstlund is on a roll, winning his second Palme d’Or award for his film Triangle of Sadness at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Previously winning the prize for The Square, Ӧstlund is now part of a class of a few elite directors holding two of these prestigious awards. However, criticism surrounding his award is rampant, with critics often pointing out the film’s lengthy two-and-a-half-hour run, the lack of thematic subtlety, and inconsistent protagonists.
There is certainly a case to be made for each of these points, but I think Ӧstlund is self-aware of these supposed shortcomings. Every decision made regarding the pacing and themes of the film is as purposeful as it is conspicuous. While the film certainly has comedic moments, it is a drama first. The last thing Ӧstlund wants us to feel is comfortable.
Triangle of Sadness unfolds in a three-part structure, a triptych of sorts. The film begins with prospective models posing and mugging for a cameraman. Carl is one such model, played by Harris Dickinson. The promoter calls Carl up to the front and points out the worry line in between his eyebrows, saying he needs to botox his “triangle of sadness.” Shortly after, we’re introduced to Carl’s more successful girlfriend, influencer Yaya, in a stunning performance given by the late Charlbi Dean. It’s quickly clear the couple is largely together to boost their social media followings and brand deals.
Yaya’s beauty awards her money and opportunities, including a trip for them aboard a luxury cruise amidst a Russian Oligarch, an elderly arms-dealing couple from England, and a woman suffering from stroke with her speech limited to one repeated sentence, “in den Wolken,” the German translation of “in the clouds.” (Might there be a metaphor lurking here?)
The second portion of the film aboard the cruise offers a deeper look into the class system. The wealthy guests are at the top, waited on by the mostly white, European staff attending to their every need, while the largely nonwhite workers clean up after them and manage the ship’s operation.
One scene that filled me with an immeasurable amount of anxiety occurred when one of the wealthy passengers was chatting up a young staff member, trying to convince her to drop her work and come take a dip into the hot tub with her.
The girl is visibly pained and uncomfortable at the idea of turning down such a request and does everything in her power to avoid saying no, but the woman will not back down. Eventually, she attempts to deny the ridiculous request, her eyes glassy, a smile strained across her face. Their interaction was visceral and frightening in its realism, as someone who has worked in several environments in which it was strongly discouraged to deny requests from rich guests.
The film cuts to staff director Paula pleading with the crew to put their swimsuits on, drop their work and go for a swim. This ridiculous task includes the engine workers, the housecleaners, and even the cooks who are forced to abandon the extravagant feast they’re preparing for the Captain’s Dinner. The out-of-touch guest looks incredibly pleased with herself.
Finally, we arrive at the now infamous Captain’s dinner. Woody Harrelson captivates with his performance as the drunken ship captain. I wish there was more of him. He spends a large chunk of the cruise tucked away in his cabin, drinking himself into a stupor. Paula has to fetch him for the important dinner where he is seated amongst the wealthy guests, although he chooses to devour a hamburger instead of the rather jiggly seafood dishes served to the others. Close-up shots of guests slurping oysters and caviar are only the precursor to an excruciating amount of visual upset. I’d recommend not watching this film on a giant theatre screen with the sounds of the seasick guests vomiting and other unpleasant bodily functions on full display for an unbearably long time. Just when you think the scene is over, another guest keels over.
In an interview with the LA Times, the director said he became almost numb to the scene through the extensive editing and shooting process, but upon watching the final cut, felt maybe he had perhaps gone too far. I’d say that’s up for debate, but in any case, the scene is forever burned into my retinas, and there is nothing I can do about that.
The third and final portion of the film surrounds a handful of passengers and workers shipwrecked on an island after the boat is capsized by attacking pirates. The hierarchy of the ship is turned on its head when survival becomes the most important task. Yaya, Carl, and the other wealthy guests are devoid of basic survival skills, including building a fire or acquiring food. Their survival rests solely in the hands of Abigail, a Filipino bathroom cleaner.
The film leads the audience to believe Yaya and Carl are the central characters of the film at the beginning. We follow them as they argue over who’s paying for dinner then aboard the ship where they fight over jealousy and attention. However, the couple is relegated towards the sidelines come the final portion of the film on the island, as Abigail becomes the clear protagonist we’re supposed to root for. Yaya and Carl’s relationship is left to die by the wayside.
Some critics were not taken by the absence of a distinctive main character, and even less so by the addition of characters at the end of the film with less than ideal time to fully flesh out why we should care about them. Critic Damien Straker called the construction of the film “loose and undisciplined” in his review. I think it’s fair to say some of the characters, specifically Abigail, should have been introduced sooner to allow the three parts to flow more smoothly. This way we could see the arcs of more characters beyond the development of Carl and Yaya.
Abigail has her first taste of power when she reveals her survival prowess to the rest of the helpless shipwrecked crew. She adjusts to this newfound status quickly, demanding they all call her “Captain.” Before long, she’s torn apart the young couple as Carl exchanges his body for her protection and food.
Scenes on the island stretch long, as I imagine days would if I were stranded with nothing to do but listen to a rich Russian man blabber and stare into the expanse of sea. (An especially nice touch in regards to the aforementioned Russian happens when his wife washes up on shore. He sobs over her deceased body until he notices she’s clad in expensive jewels, which he quickly pockets.) The dynamics between the characters feel realized and natural, and the clashes between different personalities keep the minimal scene changes interesting.
The ending of the film is left fairly open-ended. It’s unclear whether Abigail ends up killing Yaya with a rock after the two discover a resort at the back of the island. Yaya is ecstatic and offers Abigail a position as her assistant back in the real world, oblivious to the sudden darkness appearing in Abigail’s eyes. In the final shot, we see Carl, frantically running, whether he’s running from someone or towards something, we’re never shown. I like that the audience is allowed to consider what ending appeals to them most, contemplating if Abigail is justified or not in the murder, and what this ethical dilemma adds to the rest of the film.
Ӧstlund doesn’t seem to fully trust his audience to grasp his message. This distrust is particularly evident in his overuse of expositional dialogue and overt dissemination of themes of class war and power dynamics. The cruise ship plotline includes a lengthy conversation between the Oligarch and the Captain, an extreme capitalist, and a closeted Marxist, respectively, discussing their views through political quotations read over the ship’s loudspeaker. There’s not a whole lot of nuance or subtlety here, although it’s a great antecedent for what’s to come. Some critics have raised a fair point that at times the sociopolitical class takedown the film aims at unraveling may be a bit too big to chew.
But overall, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the screen for more than a few seconds, despite the long runtime. I laughed throughout the film about as much as I tensed my body and struggled against the anxiety brewing within me, in a good way. It’s not often a film that can accomplish all of that.