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Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022, remarkably director Ruben Östlund’s second Palme d’Or in just five years. Yet despite receiving a Best Picture nomination, Triangle of Sadness failed to win an Academy Award. While the seeming crowd favorite, Everything Everywhere All at Once, swept the Academy Awards this year, taking the attention away from all other contenders, Triangle of Sadness may be worth another look. It addresses the class divide in a way that’s humorously clever and rings eerily true to our modern-day realities. Perhaps as American audiences who were raised with the notion of the “American dream” – that anyone can become anything at any time (another tip of the hat to the possibilities contained within the multiverse) – we are not as willing to look soberly at this class divide, even as it exists all around us.
I saw Östlund speak at the University of Southern California in late February at a screening of Triangle, which touches on many of these realities that I don’t see the average modern American film addressing. Östlund, who is Swedish, has said in interviews that he wanted to combine an American sensibility, seemingly better suited for bringing in audiences, with a more thought-provoking European arthouse sensibility, and with Triangle he seems to have succeeded.
His film, which is presented in three chapters, begins with its focus on the fashion industry. More specifically, it focuses on the life of the male model (played here by Harris Dickinson) who, Östlund has commented, lives curiously inside a reverse of the gender pay gap, making one third to one fourth of the income of his female counterparts. (Indeed, the film’s title, which is explained early on, represents the area between the eyebrows of a human face, which is ripe for Botox, from a fashion industry perspective.)
Östlund commented at USC about how his own generation, born in the 1970s, was more likely to be driven to enter romantic relationships with the pursuit of love in mind, whereas as in the film, the current crop of younger generations were more quick to accept a relationship formed between “influencers” in part to increase their web traffic.
The film captures the modern cultural phenomenon of constantly posing for photos to broadcast what kind of time you’re having to your internet followers and having that ritual displace the time that you’re actually having. The way the female model, Yaya, played by the late Charlbi Dean, silently hands her phone back and forth to her boyfriend, Dickinson’s Carl, as he snaps constant photos of her for her Instagram feed suggests this ritual is a frequent occurrence.
At one point Yaya poses with a fork full of spaghetti aimed at her mouth which she puts down the second Carl stops taking photos. When Dimitry, who is sitting nearby, asks, “Aren’t you going to eat the pasta?” she says, “No, I’m gluten intolerant.” These characters are constantly narrating the myth of their own lives to strangers until their lives become more about capturing and narrating the myth they are selling than anything else.
The middle portion of the film takes place during a cruise onboard a 250-million-dollar luxury yacht. It’s the kind of universe where importing in Nutella by helicopter and whisking away undesirable employees from the side of the ship by boat is all in a day’s work. You can guess which entity is treated more preciously.
We note there is a hierarchy even amongst the yacht’s crew members, with of course the white guest relations employees at the top of the food chain and the people of color who service the literal and metaphorical lower tiers of the ship at the bottom. The “least desirable,” in the hierarchy who of course speak English as a second language, literally clean up the vomit of the über rich. (More vomit to come later.)
Östlund puts his characters who are in servant roles in situations where they literally can’t say no to the ridiculous demands of the entitled guests onboard. One wealthy older female passenger demands that a young guest services employee “trade places” with her, but the irony is that when the pretending to be the one in power is done by force, without real consent, this is no kind of power at all.
The most extreme manifestation of all of this is in Vicki Berlin’s character, Paula, who seems to be the head of guest relations and is in a constant state of turmoil while trying to keep things “perfect” on the surface and in the face of reality. She presents the most submissively loud face to any passenger onboard the ship who happens by — and no outrageous demand by them is considered too outrageous — while, simultaneously, she seems to be having a constant internal nervous breakdown. Because in the face of enforced perfection, sooner or later, chaos will prevail. She is the soul of the system in which they are slaves, trying desperately to maintain hierarchical divisions even after their environment has completely crumbled and a new hierarchy begins to emerge.
Woody Harrelson, in a delightful turn, is at the top of the pecking order as the captain of this vessel, yet he seems to not want to be in this position at all. In fact, he seems to be so uncomfortable with his role in the class hierarchy that he spends the first 45 minutes of the film drunkenly absent or otherwise disheveled and arguing through the door of his cabin with the various officers who try in vain to coax him out.
Harrelson’s character’s disdain for class while paradoxically being captain of, as he reiterates for us, “a 250-million-dollar luxury yacht” permeates every moment he’s on screen: from his eventual drunken reading of Marx over the ship’s intercom to eating a burger and fries at the captain’s dinner. “I’m not a fan of fine dining.” He later clarifies for us, “I am not a communist, I am a Marxist.”
When he finally makes his first public appearance onboard the ship and has to dress in uniform at the captain’s dinner while a storm seems to be brewing at sea, the slanted angle at which he is shown uncomfortably greeting guests in the face of their ridiculous demands leaves us as audience members feeling queasy. It’s a brilliant physical representation that seems to convey his inner state by letting the audience share physically in the queasiness of his own discomfort with his role.
Which leads us to the perhaps now infamous vomiting segue, which Östlund said he originally intended to go on for 30 minutes. The vomiting seems like a physical protest and, like death, a great leveler of class. It seems to release some of the tension and hypocrisy between the idle rich and the servant class. After all, it’s difficult to be dignified in a fine dining situation while one is puking at the table.
While people are puking violently all around him, one waiter says to a guest, “More wine, sir?” while refilling his glass without waiting for a response. Östlund is nothing if not a master of satire.
Paula repeats desperately amidst the chaos and much later in the film, when things have taken an even worse turn, “Stay calm, everybody, everything is fine.”
What is interesting is that even when things have gone haywire to the point that the ship’s PA system has been take over by a drunken self-described “Russian capitalist and an American communist,” it’s the middlemen in the hierarchy, like Paula, who fight most desperately to try to keep the hierarchical order in place, even in the face of societal collapse – the ship itself posing here as its own miniature model of society.
An empty and no doubt expensive overturned champagne bottle rolling alongside waves of dirty toilet water washing across the floor from a nearby overflowing toilet seems to echo what Harrelson says over the PA system about class. “And while you’re swimming in abundance the rest of the world is drowning in misery. That’s not the way it’s meant to be.” It feels like people’s bodily functions, the ship, and nature itself are erupting, literally and metaphorically revolting against this kind of inequality.
There is so much else that could be said about this film — Dolly De Leon’s exquisite performance is one aspect, as she helms its later portion in a way that is difficult to talk about without ruining the film entirely. Or a scene early on between the model couple arguing about paying the bill at a restaurant that Östlund said was taken almost verbatim from the early days of his relationship with his now wife. But the real heart of this film seems to be his gleeful skewering of the class system.
The film takes a major turn in its third and final act, about which Östlund comments, “When we are in a crisis situation, we adapt to new hierarchies quickly.” These eruptions don’t seem to do away with hierarchies altogether but merely provide for a power shift or the opportunity for a reordering, like a revolution where when the corrupt monarch’s heads are chopped off, others quickly sprout up in their places. Will they also prove to be corrupt? Only time will tell.
Östlund himself said, “If we don’t challenge the audience, what is cinema for?” and commented that the audience should not be 100 percent safe. With this film, he seems to be challenging societal structures and class hierarchies with a certain amount of glee. This skewering of class is something perhaps the modern film industry should do more of, in a way that forces us to look more deeply at ourselves and at the world around us. Despite the statistical unlikeliness that you yourself are a member of the one percent, after seeing this film, perhaps the next time someone is waiting on you with forced politeness, you’ll think more about how quickly these tables can be turned, about the humanity of all involved that seems to be obscured by these systems.
Östlund, who also spoke about his next project, which will involve passengers onboard a 15-hour flight where the entertainment system immediately goes down, said that he likes to show the contrast between who people think they are and what their real nature is. If he continues to skewer and underline the ridiculousness of our modern lives, it will likely be another film that is well worth checking out.