Ruben Ostlund’s latest satire Triangle of Sadness is named after the worry wrinkles between the eyes that can be fixed by a Botox shot. The part of the brain behind the eyes, which aid our understanding of and reaction to the world, has been severely benumbed and needs massive shocks to be re-activated, Ostlund suggests.
Triangle of Sadness, Ostlund’s debut in English, is being screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala (December 9-16). The film follows the Swedish director’s international breakthrough Force Majeure (2014), about a collapsing marriage, and the Palme d’Or-winning The Square (2017), about the art world’s pretentiousness. The target of Triangle of Sadness is late-stage capitalism itself.
Ostlund’s screenplay takes aim at many of the realities ruling the present – the transactional nature of human relationships, the commodification of the body, the belief that wealth can buy happiness, the vacuity that passes for insight into the human condition. The metaphors flow easily in a narrative with three distinctive sections set in the fashion world and on a luxury yacht and a remote island.
Triangle of Sadness begins on a hilarious note and then gradually unravels, like its characters. Although there are far too many ponderous and heavy-handed moments across the 147-minute length, some of the savage skewering is perfectly timed, including swipes at the fashion industry’s appropriation of social causes and Instagram culture.
Ramp model Carl (Harris Dickinson) gets a free holiday on the yacht courtesy his girlfriend, the social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean). They bring to their vacation traces of an ugly spat over who earns more money.
The passengers include a pair of weapon suppliers, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and a Russian billionaire who has profited from the demise of the Soviet Union. Paula (Vicki Berlin) is responsible for keeping the yacht in ship-shape. The captain (Woody Harrelson) is too sozzled to look after his guests.
Ostlund’s screenplay ranges from biting verbal satire to gross-out gags. While a strong stomach is required to watch diners suffer the effects of a storm, their subsequent marooning on a remote island is tame and tepid, barely addressing the power shift as the pampered passengers try to survive on the island with the help of a toilet cleaner.
Neither Lord of the Flies nor The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Triangle of Sadness is often as shallow as the generation it wants to shame. Some of its pronouncements on the impotence of political alternatives are about as weighty as the slogans that flash in the background of the fashion runway (“Cynicism masquerading as optimism”). Since we are smack in the age of toothless satire, where complex ideas need spelling out and shock tactics are deemed necessary to shake viewers out of their stupor, the blunt-edged feints feel oddly apt.
A set of fine actors implement Ostlund’s withering vision. Charlbi Dean, who magnificently plays Yaya, tragically died from an illness in August right after the movie’s premiere at Cannes. Harris Dickinson, as the easily manipulated model Carl, and Zlatko Buric, as the Russian oligarch Dimitri stand out in the ensemble cast. Dimitri, who has seen both sides of the ideological coin and is game for whatever comes his way, is the film’s most valuable and undervalued player.