Östlund’s super-rich satire lines up straight-forward targets to easily knock down
Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Harris Dickinson (Carl), Charlbi Dean (Yaya), Dolly de Leon (Abigail), Zlatko Burić (Dimitry), Iris Berben (Therese), Vicki Berlin (Paula), Henrik Dorsin (Jarmo), Woody Harrelson (Captain Thomas Smith), Alicia Eriksson (Alicia), Jean-Christophe Folly (Nelson), Amanda Walker (Clementine), Oliver Ford Davies (Winston), Sunnyi Melles (Vera)
In my review of The Square, Östlund’s previous Palme d’Or winner, I described its targets as “so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels”. If only I’d known: Triangle of Sadness, his satire on the super-rich, takes this to the Nth degree: it’s an entire film of Östlund spraying machine gun bullets into an aquarium of drugged fish. That’s not to say there ain’t good jokes in here and several of its sequences are cheeky, engaging and funny. It’s well-made and high quality: but it’s also obvious and is in a such a rush to make its oh-so-clever satirical points that it frequently blunts its own impact.
The film revolves around a luxury cruise liner. On board: the self-obsessed, selfish, greedy representatives of the world’s oligarchs. A Russian who repeatedly amuses himself by bragging that he sells “shit” (fertiliser), a Danish app builder who splashes his cash, a married couple of British arms-traders who jovially bemoan how UN restriction on landmines made for tough financial years… you get the idea. Also on board: Instagram influencer supermodel Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her insecure male model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). All of them treat the staff like slaves. But when the ship sinks after a storm and an attack by Somali pirates, the surviving passengers find they entirely lack the skills needed to survive on an island, unlike toilet-cleaner Abigail (Dolly de Leon) who rockets from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy.
Östlund’s film lays into the emptiness, greed and selfishness of the super-rich with glee, even if it hardly tells us anything we don’t already know. The rich are only interested in their own needs and can only see others as tools for their own pleasure: who knew? Wanting to expand his satirical targets even further, Östlund also takes a pop at the social media generation. Apparently, they are shallow and interested only in commodifying their own lives. Who knew? It’s the sort of stuff that makes for a punchy student revue, but you want something a little bit more challenging that moves above cheap shots from a Palme d’Or winner.
In many ways the film’s most interesting section (and most subtle ideas) take place before we even reach the boat. The film’s first chapter exclusively follows Carl and Yaya. Carl auditions for a modelling job where he’s treated like a piece of meat (hilariously they mutter about him needing botox). At a fashion show, staff pleasantly demand three people move out of their seats to make way for VIPS – who immediately ask for one more seat. Everyone shuffles along one (the camera following this with a neat tracking shot), leaving Carl seatless. This is a more subtle commentary on the self-obsessive focus of the super-rich than anything that follows.
Carl and Yaya are in an interesting position: they are both part of the beautiful super-rich and not (they don’t have any money). That early act opener balloons from a disagreement over who pays for a meal into Carl inarticulately arguing for sexual-equality and mutual partnerships that defy gender roles. It’s more interesting than almost anything that follows, because it’s multi-layered and raises genuine issues we all face (to varying degrees).
But the film abandons multi-layered the second it steps foot on the boat. There are fun set pieces. Carl unwittingly gets a pool attendant fired because he’s jealous of Yaya’s admiration for his topless body. The staff on the boat gee themselves up for days of enthusiastic deference with a tip-expectant-group-chant. A Russian lady demands the staff all swim in the sea so they can have as much fun as she is having (and to show how ‘normal’ she is). The film’s most infamous set-piece occurs as a storm coincides with the captain’s dinner (with the fish courses under-cooked due to the aforementioned obligatory staff swim) leading to nearly all the passengers projectile vomiting across the state room, then sliding around the floors of the swaying ship in their own filth.
Amusing as that can be in its guignol excess, it tells you how subtle the film is. The film is awash with obvious, lazy jokes – of course the polite arms trading couple are called Winston and Clementine! To hammer home the social issues the film whacks us over the head with, the Captain (an awkward performance from Woody Harrelson) an alcoholic Marxist spends the storm pissed in his cabin, reading Noam Chomsky and his own anti-capitalist ravings over the ship’s tannoy. This takes up a huge amount of screen-time and manages to be both obvious and not very funny.
The film enjoys taking these pot-shots so much, it ends up feeling rushed when we arrive at the island. If we had seen more of Dolly de Leon’s Abigail earlier in the film (in actuality, the film sidelines her as much as the characters do, barely allowing her more than a minute of screentime in its first hour), the shift in social hierarchy would have carried more impact. If Östlund’s film had more patience to show the passengers expectation that shipwrecked life would be identical to that on the boat, then Abigail taking charge after a few days that would have carried more impact. Instead, Abigail takes command from arrival, and then essentially behaves (in a way I’m not sure the film quite understands) with exactly the same self-entitled greed as the passengers did. She takes the best cabin, establishes a hierarchy, keeps most of the food and turns Carl into a sex toy.
Because we’ve not really seen Abigail earlier in the film, we don’t get a sense of her earlier mistreatment (really, most of the film would have been better told from her point-of-view) or join her satisfaction at the tables being turned. The film also exhausts its commentary on the super-rich leaving it with little to say about in its third act Lord of the Flies set-up. Instead, the film dawdles its way to a conclusion and cliffhanger ending that feels unearned.
It makes you regret the loss of its earlier more subtle commentary on Instagrammers Carl and Yaya (good performances from Harris Dickinson and the tragically late Charlbi Dean) who are drowning-not-waving in a world where they must commodify their bodies but have no power over them, struggling to work-out where they fit in a world. It throws this overboard to go for some (admittedly at times funny) gags about greed and very obvious social commentary. If it had committed to its social underclass uprising earlier – or carried on with its more subtle themes from the opening prologue – it would have been a better film. Instead it’s as subtle and probing as the faceful of vomit it serves up halfway through.