Cannes 2022 review: Triangle of Sadness (Ruben Östlund)

“For those who liked The Square this is more of the same, and at 150 minutes a lot more, actually. Your mileage may vary, but fans of Östlund’s irreverent, vile humor will not be disappointed.”

Cynicism is a wonderful emotion. If you are Ruben Östlund, that is. Ever the provocateur, the 2017 Palme d’Or winner for The Square doesn’t back down from taking the cheapest shots in his latest opus Triangle of Sadness, but taking the piss out of the myth that is humanity is never a bad thing. A film about, among other things, the corrupting power of capitalism, Triangle of Sadness gleefully makes fun of the rich and vacuous at a festival designed for the rich and vacuous, a trick he already employed with The Square (though it was just the vacuous in that case). While it is unlikely that this film will net Östlund his second Palme in a short time (festival politics will prevent that), he can at least boast that he has made the most entertaining film of the competition so far (the new Dardennes looks like a hoot too, so they might give him a run for his money).

Triangle of Sadness is split into three parts, the opening act an introduction of sorts of the two main characters, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean). Two models and influencers, they get into a fight over who should pay the bill at a fancy restaurant in a protracted awkward argument about gender roles that goes from restaurant to taxi to elevator. In the end they patch up under agreement that it is better for their careers, and next time we see them they are on a very exclusive yacht full of filthy rich people, who are about to get filthy in other ways too. ‘Opulence’ is the keyword on this ship, even though Carl and Yaya got on board for free courtesy of their numbers of Instagram followers. Run by a perpetually drunk captain (a glorious Woody Harrelson), the ship sails into a thunderstorm right in the middle of a copious dinner. A vomiting scene to rival Monty Python ensues, and as chaos descends on the ship a delirious anti-capitalist Harrelson and a staunchly capitalist Russian businessman (Zlatko Buric) bond over their disdain for each other’s ideologies. And then the pirates board the ship.

In the final act the yacht has sunk, and the few stranded survivors have to start a new society on the abandoned island that is their new home. Tables are turned now that money is worthless, and suddenly it is Filipino toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon) who is at the top of the food chain running things, being the only one who possesses survival skills such as catching food and making a fire. In what can best be described as a hilarious crossover between Survivor and Lost, Abigail milks her power for all it’s worth, manipulating her fellow survivors and coercing them in exchange for food and other favors.

The film opens with a discussion between Carl and Yaya about gender roles in a patriarchal society, with Carl advocating gender equality by trying to get Yaya to foot the bill. Imagine his disillusionment when the matriarchy under Abigail is just as prone to corrupted ‘haves’ abusing their power over the ‘have nots’, bringing the film full circle; or full triangle if you will. The title refers to the opening scene, in which a casting agent tells Carl that he needs to lose his ‘triangle of sadness’, whatever that means, because the importance of fashion now also lies in the politically correct ‘inside’. The rest of Triangle of Sadness will show that the inside is rotten to the core, and that’s not just the bile coming out after a rocky night on the ocean.

Östlund mainly goes down familiar paths here, showing a healthy disdain for his characters and humanity in general, but he does it with so much gusto that you can’t help but be won over by its acerbic nastiness. He is no stranger to Lord Acton’s axiom of power corrupting, that much is clear, but while he doesn’t say anything really new or insightful, the way he goes about it is damn funny and written with a pen dipped in acid. Besides the commentary on the negatives of power and how it affects both sexes equally (we are equal after all, right?), Triangle of Sadness also comments on the fragility of the modern masculine man. Carl’s insecurity towards Yaya, exacerbated by working in an industry where the women make thrice as much, is a recurring issue in the film that is wonderfully capped by a possibly gender-affirming ending (‘possibly’, since the screen cuts to black before the resolve). Add the idea that socialism and capitalism make strange bedfellows through Harrelson and Buric finding each other in the film’s funniest interaction, and you have a potent mix of themes that Östlund delights in poking a blunt stick at. For those who liked The Square this is more of the same, and at 150 minutes a lot more, actually. Your mileage may vary, but fans of Östlund’s irreverent, vile humor will not be disappointed.