Tag: Ruben Östlund

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Triangle of Sadness (2022)

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.

The Square (2017)

The Square header
Art goes wrong in Ruben Östlund’s scattergun satire The Square

Director: Ruben Östlund

Cast: Claes Bang (Christian), Elizabeth Moss (Anne), Dominic West (Julian), Terry Notary (Oleg Rogozjin), Christopher Læssø (Michael), Lise Stephenson Engström (Daughter), Lilianne Mardon (Daughter), Marina Schiptjenko (Elna), Annica Liljeblad (Sonja), Elijandro Edouard (Boy with Letter)

Christian (Claes Bang) has it all. The respected director of a celebrated Swedish Modern Art Gallery, he’s rich, handsome and highly thought of by all. That all fractures when his phone and wallet are stolen in a confidence trick. Using the phone’s tracker, Christian identifies the working-class apartment building its in. In a burst of late-night energy, he writes a threatening letter to the thieves and posts a copy through every single apartment door demanding it’s return. It is: but Christian’s letter has a negative impact on an innocent young boy (Elijandro Edouard) whose parents now believe he must be a thief. Christian is so preoccupied with this he fails to pay attention to a YouTube video created to promote his new exhibition: the video of a homeless child being blown up outside the museum leads to national condemnation.

And that exhibit? It’s called The Square (you see!). Its main feature is a literal square on the floor, marking a safe space where everyone is equal. The exhibit is themed around trust, mutual respect and altruism. Traits which Östlund’s film reminds us time-and-time again his central characters are all sadly lacking in. It’s part of a broad-ranging satire on the self-importance of the Art World and the self-obsession of the upper classes that, while beautifully filmed, comes across as rather scattergun. Putting it bluntly, most of its targets are so obvious, the entire film might as well be footage of fish being shot in barrels.

A film like this, hinges on Christian’s self-perception being clearly shown to be very different from his reality. In effect, we need to see how Christian believes himself to be a decent, upstanding, noble fellow but also be shown he is in fact prejudiced, self-obsessed and vain. While the film does very well to show how shallow Christian’s “nice-guy” image is – he basks in the adulation of colleagues and museum patrons and carefully prepares his ‘spontaneous’ presentations for maximum effect – we never get quite enough of a sense of how he sees himself. His mystique is punctured so early, that the sense of events forcing an awkward confrontation with his true character is not developed.

This takes nothing away from the exceptional performance of Claes Bang, a charismatic and gifted actor who can pivot on a sixpence from huge charm to bullying menace. He’s completely believable as the red-spectacled, scarf wearing aesthete just as he is the sort of bully who’ll push a troublesome kid over. Matey and jovial with his employees, he’s also hesitant on their names and berates assistant Michael (Christopher Læssø) when he gets cold feet about executing his letter drop plan (on top of which, he naturally assumes as Michael is black, he’ll be better at carrying out the plan than Christian). His life is a careful performance, with every moment scripted by him, that fractures into something much messier the instant he loses control.

It’s just a shame that Östlund doesn’t delve into the opportunities this presents. He’s more interested in obvious characters like Elizabeth Moss’ Anne, a preening journalist (she inexplicably lives with a Chimp) with whom Christian enjoys a one-night stand, culminating in the two of them bickering over a used condom. (Christian seems worried she’ll pinch his sperm).

Too often Östlund contents himself with simply stating that the upper clases are vain and pre-occupied with their own needs instead of the lives of others. In case we miss this point, the film is littered with shots of beggars. It even opens with the camera focused on a beggar sleeping on the street in broad daylight while, off camera, a passionate student pushes leaflets urging people to do more to help the homeless while passers-by express irritation or disinterest to them. You see! Even the campaigner is more interested in virtue signalling than actually helping people! Interactions with beggars pepper the film: Christian is annoyed by one beggar not being grateful enough when he condescendingly offers to buy them dinner to get out of an awkward conversation with them and then later pays another to guard his shopping when he takes a phone call.

This social satire runs in parallel with a scathing-but-rather-obvious series of jokes at the expense of the preening self-importance of the Art World. The exhibition, The Square, is treated as if it’s the second coming but, other than parroting the Artist’s written vision, no one (not even Christian) seems interested in engaging in it or really has a clue what it is trying to do. The most important part of Christian’s role is in fact attracting money from rich patrons, who ooh and ahh over the art but have nothing whatsoever to say about it. The art itself is a parade of cliches – although there is a very funny recurring joke of an installation that is a series or piles of ash on the floor which the museum cleaners inadvertently slowly reduce each night.

The unwillingness of people to rock the boat in social situations is also parodied. Dominic West cameos as an American artist whose Q&A is constantly disrupted by a man with Tourettes – the discussion collapses but no one knows how to even to begin to manage the situation. This culminates in the film’s showpiece (and best scene). A Russian artist whose ‘art’ is to impersonate a monkey (played by motion-capture guru Terry Notary), performs an installation at a fund raiser dinner. The guests (and Christian) sit in increasingly awkward silence, no one willing to take the first step to intervene, as the artist progresses from humorous monkey noises to increasing acts of intimidation, violence and finally sexual assault.

It’s all interesting stuff, but it all feels a little too obvious. The advertising reps bought into design the video are such cliched social media obsessives they feel like sitcom characters. The juxtaposition of The Square’s idea that “everyone inside the square is equal” with the reality of no one being equal is made time and time and again with reduced impact.

Östlund finds a host of squares (stairways, windows etc) to frame Christian in visually to hammer this home. He makes frequent use of one-sided two shot set ups (meaning we only focus on one character during a conversation or exchange) which helps further drill down into that character’s psyche and stress their distance from whoever they are talking to. But it’s a lot of flash on an otherwise rather obvious and self-satisfied film, which never makes as many new and original points as it thinks.

If it’s a stunning realisation to you that people have a tendency to be self-obsessed, that the Art world is as much about posing and money as it is art and that social awkwardness will stop people intervening in the most disastrous circumstances, this is the film for you. Otherwise, you might find little real insight here.