‘Triangle of Sadness,’ a Brutal Mockery of Influencers and Billionaires, Seduces Cannes

After the surprise Palme d’Or attributed to The Square, Ruben Ostlund’s finely conceived, punchy, but occasionally rather pious piss-take of the art world, Cannes was waiting impatiently to see the director’s next move. His follow-up, which is in broad terms a sociopolitical satire of the influencer-led one percent, takes all of Östlund’s best qualities—namely, formal verve, an exacting eye for cringe comedy, and a riotous appetite for farce—and tumbles them together to make a film of almost pure pleasure, whose relentless attacks on the unequally privileged of our world are sledgehammer-heavy in the best way. Triangle of Sadness is an utter joy of a film, which on top of its many qualities boasts a bravura scene of sustained gross-out comedy that makes the puking sequence from Team America: World Police look like something from A room with a view.

Triangle of Sadness—so named for the mini-frown area between a person’s eyebrows (in this case, between the beautifully-sculpted brows of gorgeous male-model Carl, played by Harris Dickinson) spends its first third in the world of modeling and influencers. We first meet Carl at an audition in the company of two dozen other pectorally-blessed demigods, and then watch him get into a painful, beautifully written argument with his South African influencer-girlfriend, Yaya, over a restaurant bill. From there, the film repairs to a cruise that the couple go on, which goes hilariously awry (and culminates in the aforementioned bowel and gut-churning sequence), and in a third act the couple find themselves stranded on a desert island in the company of various other multimillionaire passengers and one member of the kitchen crew.

From all of these scenarios, Östlund wrings every last drop of painfully acute comedy, showing not only a gimlet eye for detail in the way he writes his dialogue, but a great formal brio in his staging and composition. For instance, during Carl’s early quarrel with Yaya over a restaurant bill that she expects him to pay for, Östlund digs deep, deep down into every dimension of the argument, teasing out elements of language, of gender performance, of the couple’s sexual dynamic, and brilliantly stages a passage of this set-to in an elevator with a door that is perpetually closing between the two protagonists, leading Carl to poke a hand through the doors in irritation every other minute. This tremendous eye for detail, for the sheer pleasure that such devices can create in the viewer, is visible at every turn in this birthday present of a film. It’s there in the old couple of arms dealers on the cruise, whose names are Clementine and Winston (named after Churchill and his wife); it’s there in the needling lampooning of Insta-influencing, in a scene in which Yaya poses for a series of photos with a bowl of spaghetti before discarding it because of her gluten intolerance. After a while, even the fact of Harris Dickinson walking about the place topless in almost every scene starts to seem profoundly funny in itself.

The objects of Östlund’s kicking, in this film, are the grotesque, moneyed upper-classes of the new globalized world order. It should be stated upfront that while the director’s aim is true, his attacks are not in the least bit subtle: during the cruise portion of the film, Östlund gives over a sizable amount of time to an argument between an American Marxist and a Russian capitalist ; in the island section he contrives a pointedly new social hierarchy with about as much delicacy as a herd of elephants rampaging through a savanna. But in a film as delicious as this, in which wicked visual gags compound the sheer fury of the discourse, subtlety is not the order of the day. When the stranded millionaires start to be led by a former maid on their deserted island, where rich and poor have become equal overnight, Östlund’s point is as evident as a punch to the face. But the joy lies in the execution: Abigail (magnificently played by Dolly De Leon), the new boss of this piecemeal society, demands subservience from her fellow castaways, who are all required to call her “captain” in order to receive food. In this scene, which is apparently so trivial but which is inhabited by white-hot fury, Harris Dickinson especially is hilarious as a model whose cachet is now reduced to (almost) nothing. When Carl realizes that he can trade on his sexual magnetism for food, a further layer of uproariously bleak awkwardness is added to the mix.

Dickinson, in the lead role of Carl, finds in Triangle of Sadness his best role since the young queer character of Eliza Hittman’s beach rats: it’s a wonder to see him used so well by Östlund, who understands perfectly how to exploit Dickinson’s charisma, talent and (especially) his smiling, diffident attitude toward his own personal beauty. Watching him read Ulysses with his top off (a stunning visual gag) or squabble pettily with his girlfriend over her noticing an attractive man, or spray himself with a bottle of perfume on a desert island where such luxuries could not be less relevant, produces a great deal of this film’s joy. Why haven’t more movies made insanely attractive people deeply hilarious?

Why haven’t more movies made insanely attractive people deeply hilarious?

In The Square, Östlund occasionally lost track of his story by overly moralizing, which detracted a little from the film’s formal precision and its juicy comedy. Here, the director certainly has an end in mind, but goes about it in a less sententious way, culminating in the desert island section in which the director is able to tease out everybody’s sociopolitical relations while never letting up on the jokes. Here, existential metaphysics rub up against TheOffice-style cringe comedy in a way that feels wholly natural, as in a delightful scene in which Carl and one other castaway disobey Abigail and break into the group’s rationed stash of pretzel sticks. Carl’s fragile relationship with Yaya is also put to the test here, in a way that feels wincingly true.

Triangle of Sadness is imperfect, and some will judge it overlong, but the sheer chutzpah of its enterprise, and the Swiftian, tear-it-all-down verve of its set pieces, as well as Östlund’s unerring eye for executing truly cinematic farce, make this the most purely enjoyable film to have screened at Cannes so far.


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