Synopsis – A fashion model celebrity couple join an eventful cruise for the super-rich.
My Take – Given that it won the prestigious Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, there has been a lot of buzz around Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017) writer-director Ruben Östlund‘s latest. Unsurprising, considering most of us love films which mock privileged and entitled people, especially the ones who do not show even a flicker of a redeeming quality. Of course we want to see them punished and humiliated.
And though his film has found itself in a gloomy situation considering its beautiful young star Charlbi Dean died in August of a freak infection at the age of 32, it doesn’t change the fact that his hilarious take down of the wealthy elite and the subsequent blurring of class roles is a sight to behold and possibly his best shot so far at a mainstream American crossover.
While his brand of satire doesn’t always pay off here, director Östlund still manages to keep the film funny and entertaining from start to finish even when it is dealing with heavy handed topics such as richness, power, capitalism/socialism, among others.
Sure, it is far from subtle about what it wants to say, but it is hard to resist its depiction of wealthy, powerful and beautiful people as they are stripped of dignity and autonomy. Particularly when they are pushed to extremes of discomfort, that we can’t help but feel a bit guilty for laughing. Still, it’s all in good and fun, as what is laid out here is a very likable film with stellar performances and a very funny but believably absurd story that goes on for about 147 minutes.
The story initially follows two models, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and his more successful influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who work in the modern fashion industry, and find themselves invited on a free luxury cruise she’s got courtesy of her millions of followers. Here they are joined by a multitude of other people, mostly wealthy. There’s the vulgar yet charismatic Russian oligarch Dimitri (Zlatko Buric) and his wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles) and the elderly couple Clementine (Amanda Walker) and Winston (Oliver Ford Davies), who made their fortune manufacturing weapons.
There’s also Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), a lonely tech millionaire who comes alive with female company, and a German woman named Therese (Iris Berben) who is only capable of speaking a single sentence following a stroke. Catering to their overall absurd requests is the hapless head of staff Paula (Vicki Berlin), who also becomes saddled with taking care of the always drunk ship captain Thomas (Woody Harrelson). And as the ship moves along the sea, the absurdity doubles down.
Split into three parts, each part has a slightly different tone and perspective, but there are characters who occur across more than one part, and nearly everybody is unified by being in miserable situations that are presented to the audience with gleeful relish. The story seems a bit ridiculous but the shots taken on privileges are unbelievably accurate and on point. Östlund’s script is well-tuned to the less obvious ways in which the rich embarrass and inconvenience those serving them. The film’s most excruciating moment comes when one of the guests, suddenly at home to entirely recreational concern, insists that the staff all have time to enjoy a swim.
The main attraction of the film is of course the Captain’s Dinner scene, where the guests gather for a luxurious dinner in the middle of a storm at sea. Even if you don’t know what’s about to happen, you’ll suspect it from the start. The film builds it up perfectly; from the subtle tilt of the guests and the servers, showing the constant and slowly increasing instability of the yacht as the seas grow rougher, to the more and more noticeable ways in which the expressions and body language show on setting nausea, until everything is finally unleashed and everyone puking their guts out.
And as the ship’s toilets back up, the PA system blares out drunken philosophical arguments, and pirates surround the ship, its literal Hell for everyone involved. It’s in the final act when the film turns towards social order especially regarding class and gender when the survivors from the destroyed cruise manage to escape to a seemingly deserted island, and find themselves submit to Abigail (Dolly de Leon), the toilet manager who has survival skills they lack.
Here, director Östlund plays one of his greatest tricks by making a previously unnoticed character rise to the center of the narrative, cleverly implicating the audience along with the other characters for having not paid enough attention to somebody who turns out to be far more important than we gave them credit for.
However, while the last section of the film is initially engaging in terms of depicting how the status quo has upended, it bites off more than, resulting in the narrative to slow down considerably as it treats the guests as just mere concepts. Nevertheless, the director Östlund successfully manages to straddle the divide between nuanced commentary and broad humor with a bunch of characters that you cannot help liking, but equally, cannot help enjoying to see suffer.
It also helps that Harris Dickinson and Charlbi Dean’s taut but subtle performances craft wonderfully hypocritical characters. The excellent Dickinson makes something almost sympathetic of a mannequin while the equally strong Dean plays off him sharply as a girlfriend still at the top of the catwalk game. In other roles, Filipino actress Dolly de Leon without a doubt steals the film, Zlatko Burić deliciously plays an oligarch and Woody Harrelson is the effortlessly chaotic. In other roles, Vicki Berlin, Iris Berben, Oliver Ford Davies, Henrik Dorsin, Sunnyi Melles, Arvin Kananian, and Jean-Christophe Folly are terrific. On the whole, ‘Triangle of Sadness’ is an absurdly entertaining and sprawling satire that is rarely subtle.
Directed – Ruben Östlund
Rated – R
Run Time – 147 minutes