The title of Ruben Östlund’s film refers to the space between Harris Dickinson’s eyebrows. When his character, fledgling model Carl, appears at an audition, he receives the critique to “relax the triangle of sadness between his eyes.” As the film goes on, however, this little triangle only becomes more dismayed, to the point where the recruiters at Carl’s audition would probably tell him outright he gets Botox rather than simply murmuring the thought to one another where Carl can’t hear them. What begins, seemingly, as a simple critique of the vacuous fashion industry, those who inhabit it and the subtle class differences between them, cascades into an episodic farce in which people ranging from the kind-of-rich like Carl to the super-rich are thrown into an increasingly perilous situation that strips them of their comfortable class privileges.
It’s curious to consider that this is the film that won Cannes’ Palme d’Or a year after Titane, but it does make sense. It’s a smug series of uninspired sketches that poke fun at the wealthy in a way that does little to provoke deeper considerations for those most likely to watch it, other than “Yes, I agree with this.” But it’s that kind of “patting one’s back” type satire that allows those in equally powerful positions as the very people being made fun of in the film to hold it up as a paradigm of timely provocation—one only a few rungs higher than last year’ abysmal yet self-satisfied Don’t Look Up. In reality, Triangle of Sadness is neither as smart nor as interesting as it clearly thinks it is.
The film kicks off with a sequence focusing on Carl and his model girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), as a yet-unpaid check at the dinner table dovetails into a heated, hours-long argument over gender roles and income. Yaya makes a lot more money than Carl in the same industry (though, “it’s unsexy to talk about money,” Yaya remarks), but insists that Carl still be the one to pay for all their dinners. This is so that Carl can clearly establish himself to Yaya as a suitable provider. Their car ride home as the row continues is delightfully claustrophobic, close-ups and a whirling camera almost diegetically increasing the tension between the characters. And as the conversation continues into their hotel elevator, Carl is comically caught between the closing doors and his urgency to continue the fight until it’s truly over.
Their quarrel finally does end after Yaya’s admission that she is essentially just using Carl for stability and Instagram clout, and Carl promises to make her really love him, one way or another. Between the three chapters the film is split into, this first is probably the best: A simple, funny capsule look at a dysfunctional couple that considers the intrinsic societal expectations surrounding gender and money.
We then follow the young lovers into the film’s next chapter aboard a luxury yacht, a sojourn gifted from one of Yaya’s many brand admirers on Instagram. But the couple is decidedly lower in rank compared to the majority of those aboard the boat, which mostly consists of money so old that it’s begun to curdle. From there, hijinks ensue. Woody Harrelson makes a delightful surprise appearance as the ship’s drunken, absent captain, who would rather schedule the captain’s dinner on a stormy, nausea-inducing night, and eat a hamburger in spite of opulent dinner fare due to his aversion to fine dining. Tensions between Yaya and Carl, the crew and the captain, and the crew and the passengers (with strange requests) quietly churn…until that churning becomes a roil on the night of the captain’s dinner, when everyone finally “lets loose,” so to speak, giving way to the film’s best—and most revolting—portion.
While still not the most incisive attempt at social commentary, it is gratifying to witness a ship full of tightly-wound, primped and preened, bourgeois Europeans suddenly be forced to roll around in their own filth, class distinction done away with when everyone is soaked in the same bodily fluids. But less obvious commentary is not Triangle of Sadness’ strong suit. Earlier on the yacht, there are a few moments of particularly eye-rolling social media critique, where vapid, beautiful women in bikinis strike poses for their boyfriends who hold their phone cameras, immediately grabbing them back to go over and pick the photo most fit for posting. There’s an intrinsic “look at these vain young people and their technology” overtone that almost always comes off as out-of-touch when approached in film, and it’s especially apparent when tackled by a director nearing 50. The politics of posting selfies and the Instagram influencers who profit from them are more complex than just pointing to the fact that it’s a form of self-obsessed unreality that’s controlling our lives.
But the film manages to stay at least consistently entertaining and interesting to look at (cinematography by Fredrik Wenzel), even if it reaches a certain point where it feels like it will never end. The stand-out attributes of the film are, by far, Dickinson’s performance—dryly funny as he overcompensates for his masculine insecurities—and Dolly de Leon’s sharp turn as Abigail, a lower crewmember aboard the yacht whose brief initial appearance becomes integral to the narrative later on. But the film’s aim to be an intricate, interconnected web of critique on class hierarchies is so bloated and surface-level that it’s difficult to go along with it, even if the series of events it follows are often amusing or even laugh-out-loud. Triangle of Sadness isn’t going for subtlety, but it’s not going for anything particularly novel, either.
Director: Ruben Östlund
Writer: Ruben Östlund
Starring: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Dolly de Leon, Zlatko Buri?, Henrik Dorsin, Vicki Berlin, Woody Harrelson
Release Date: October 1, 2022 (New York Film Festival)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared at Gawker, The Playlist, Polygon, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more. You can follow her on Twitter.