Director: Ruben Östlund (Sweden, France, UK, Germany, Turkey, Greece). Year of Release: 2022
A room full of male fashion models, all of them with their tops off. A camp reporter interviews them to camera, asking them why they don’t rise up because they’re earning one third of what women in the same job get. There’s a neat joke about how H&M adverts require models to be happy, whereas for more upbeat lines like Balenciaga, they must be grumpy to reflect the core audience’s disdain for other people. You don’t need to see the film for this joke – it’s in the trailer.
Cut to: the people who’d organised the photoshoot telling the models who’s got the gig. One man comes on with his portfolio, which includes a cover page magazine ad for a cologne. But that was three years ago – an age in fashion modelling. They tell him to work on his Triangle of Sadness – the frowny bit between your eyebrows and the top of your nose. Talking amongst themselves, they agree that he’s a bit of a lost cause, but maybe Botox could help.
Cut to: the front row of an audience waiting for a fashion show to start. Some of the staff come and ask three people in the centre to go and find other seats. It’s not that they’re sat in the wrong seats, it’s just that someone more important has arrived. Word comes that the important party consists of four people, not three. Everyone in the front row is asked to move one seat to their right. One man at the end is left standing up with nowhere left to sit.
Following this introduction before the opening credits, Triangle of Sadness consists of three unequal parts. The first part, “Carl and Yaya” is about the eponymous models and influencers. We’ve already met Carl – three times. He was one of the group smiling for H&M, the one whose triangle of sadness is not up to scratch, and the man standing up at the fashion show (where you could also see Yaya walking down the catwalk).
Although Part 1 is the shortest third, the argument inside it is interminable. The bland yuppies argue about who should pay for their meal – an argument that continues in the taxi, into the hotel lift and in the bedroom. Yaya argues that “talking about money is unsexy”, in the way that only someone who has never been poor can. The fact is that the cost of the meal was peanuts to either of them, and Carl’s use of feminism in his defence makes him seem just as petty and objectionable.
For Part 2: The Yacht, we follow Carl on Yaya onto a luxury yacht – she’s been given free tickets because she makes good publicity. She makes Carl photograph her, then chooses which pictures she should post on social media. After a photo of her with spaghetti twirled around her fork, she puts it down without eating it – she doesn’t touch the stuff herself, she’s gluten intolerance.
The yacht is populated by a ghastly collection of, let’s be honest, stereotypes. There’s the Russian fertiliser magnate who introduces himself as a “seller of shit”, the Swedish programmer who made millions selling software to apps and now goes on trips like this to perve at fellow passengers, and the nice elderly couple who made their money selling armaments. The staff are drilled at a team meeting to indulge their every whim. The meeting finishes with them chanting “Money, Money!”
While watching the film, I got a big vibe of The Square, the critically acclaimed film which won the Palme D’Or a few years back, but felt too cold and not angry enough to me. So, it’s no surprize that it’s by the same director. Although this time round, most critics are much less indulgent and feel that, although the film attacks the right subjects, the satire lacks the subtlety and humour required to make it really work (so, just like The Square, then:) )
Case in point is the film’s central scene. A passenger insists that all the staff go for a swim, including those who are supposed to be preparing the food. Meanwhile, the drunken captain decides that the one day he’ll come out and greet the passengers is during a heavy storm, The result is a mass outbreak of diarrhoea and vomiting amongst the privileged tourists. This is briefly amusing but – like most scenes in the film – goes on way too long and is just not funny enough.
Part 3: The Island turns the tables. After a pirate attack, some of them get stranded on a desert island, but the only person able to fish or make a fire is one of the cleaning women. Yes, it’s exactly the same joke as in one of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy books over 40 years ago. Except this time, the people who are unable to look after themselves on a desert island are not telephone sanitisers, but the truly worthless – those who have grown rich from other people’s labour.
Again, it is a neat idea which targets the right people but suffers from a lack of any inventiveness or subtlety. A member of the crew turns up on the island, who they think must be a pirate because he’s black. Or maybe he is a pirate? The problem is that this character – like many others – is so underwritten that any potential interesting plot development is barely possible.
The film occasionally springs to life when Woody Harrelson appears as the Marxist (don’t call me Communist) ship’s captain. He develops a friendship with the Russian shit seller, and they trade quotes from Thatcher and Chomsky, sometimes over the ship’s Intercom. But Harrelson is rarely there – for most of the first half of the film, he’s hidden behind his cabin door, and in the final Part, he is present, but is given little to say. You guess they only paid him for a couple of days’ work.
Triangle of Sadness hates on the right people, but it doesn’t have anything to say about them which is either interesting or funny – a slight problem in a comedy. The hatred is also scattershot – gluten intolerance meets as much ire as arms dealing. It is also slightly annoying that Dolly, the woman who saves them on the island, is not an ordinary cleaner but the cleaners’ manager. For all his hatred of the rich, I’m not sure that Östlund trusts poor people much.
Added to this, the character development is minimal. The reliance on stereotype and cliché means that the satire just about hits but has little impact. It’s a shame, as there are things to like in the film – just not enough, and what is there goes on for much too long. It’s more a missed opportunity than an absolute disaster, but maybe this makes the disappointment even greater.