In the five years since his film The Square won the Palme d’Or here at the Cannes Film Festival, Swedish writer-director Ruben Östlund seems to have spent some time watching Bravo’s yacht crew reality show Below Deck: Mediterranean, scrolling through Instagram with a frustrated huff and an eyeroll, and, like the rest of us, looking on as the uber-rich got even uber-richer at the expense of so many others. At least, that’s suggested by his new work, Triangle of Sadness, a film that evokes Swept Away, The White Lotus, and myriad other rich people satires, only with a lot more vomit.
A biting comedy told in three parts, Triangle of Sadness has knives out (heh) for a lot of folks. There are the male models—and, really, the whole fashion industry—whom we encounter in the film’s uproarious cold open, featuring some swishy fashion correspondent interviewing a bunch of slack-jawed hunks. One such hunk is Carl (Harris Dickinson), a fit lad from the U.K. who, despite his boggling good looks and previous experience as a cologne model, doesn’t book the runway job he’s auditioning for.
We meet his girlfriend, the more successful model and influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean), when the two are bickering over who should pick up the check at a fancy restaurant neither of them seem to have enjoyed. This sequence is the Östlund that fans of his shattering masterpiece Force Majeure will most closely recognize. It’s a precise and stinging skewering of human dynamics—particularly those between romantically linked men and women—while a broader social horror hovers above. This first piece of the triptych promises more of that, an arch evisceration of how we live now—and may have always.
Then it’s off to a yacht. Not a private charter, like you’d see on Below Deck, but a swanky, exclusive cruise. Östlund sets that stage well, swiftly mapping the boat’s ecosystem, with the languid guests on the deck, the all-white steward staff psyching themselves up to earn huge tips, and a largely Asian and Black crew toiling away anonymously in the laundry and engine rooms. A subversion of this order seems in the offing, a revolution for which Östlund—and, really, life in the world—has well whetted our appetite.
But first must come the vomit, a torrent of puking as the boat plows through rough seas. This ornate and deliriously vile set-piece is more reminiscent of The Square, which keeps ratcheting up the absurdism to the point (in this critic’s opinion, anyway) of incoherence. It is fun, and satisfying, to watch as these monsters are punished for their oligarchic indulgence, but one hopes it is all spewing toward a point.
Which is awaited with mounting tedium in the film’s third section. A scattered band of crew and passengers find themselves stranded on an island, cobbling together a crude little society while, of course, falling prey to all the usual human foibles, particularly our rapacious species’s preternatural skill at creating inequity. It’s in this portion of the film that Östlund seems to lose sight of his specific targets, or perhaps confirms that his approach was much more scattershot than it earlier seemed. He keeps his ire mostly on the entitled swells who can’t believe that the power that has fattened them (in body and mind) has been largely rendered useless. But he also lets some other angers creep in, throwing rocks at pretty much everyone who seems to offend his sensibilities in one way or another.
Triangle of Sadness needn’t be a fair film, nor one that readily delivers the simple righteousness of have-nots triumphing over have-lots. A more carefully shaped argument would have been appreciated, though. And one that didn’t dissolve so quickly into a juvenile snicker. There are myriad moments of wicked, clever brilliance in Östlund’s film—at its piercing best, his writing has an astounding fluency, shifting between classes and types with frightful dexterity.
The cast seizes this crisp dialogue with panache. Dickinson reveals a comic timing maybe none of us thought he could possibly have in his arsenal. (I guess you can have it all?) Dean helps deepen what could have been a snide, stock Instababe character. The great Zlatko Buric shrewdly, and yet oddly humanely, plays a Russian zillionaire who quite literally peddles shit. And Dolly De Leon, popping up rather late on this two-and-a-half-hour tour, strolls off with the movie as a yacht maid possessed of smarts and mettle that none of the richies, nor her bossy superior, have anticipated.
The biggest name in the cast is Woody Harrelson, who plays the yacht’s drunken Marxist captain. He laughs and drinks on as his passengers are sent flinging about the ship’s dining room, losing their gourmet food in great gushes. As the film stumbles toward its abrupt ending, it begins to seem that Harrelson may have been playing some version of Östlund himself, the director, like the captain, reveling in and cheering on the chaos of all these idiots scrambling over one another, not realizing that this was inevitable.
There’s a nihilism in the film’s ultimate pose, its picture of absolute power corrupting absolutely—no matter who wields it. You can stage your little revolt, Triangle of Sadness says with a shrug, but all the same old problems will rear their heads eventually enough. History, read a certain way, may support him on some of that. And Östlund does still seem to be on the side of the characters who have long been crushed underfoot, even when they’re at their worst.
But everyone is a part of the same sorry cycle in the end, in Östlund’s view, which brings his film closer and closer to the rocky shores of the isle of shitposters and trolls who simply want to mock everything as the world burns. Maybe that’s really all we can do—who would be so foolish to think this can be fixed? But its tack toward sardonic “whatever, man” apathy eventually leaves Triangle of Sadness stranded at sea.