Film Review: ‘Triangle of Sadness’5 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Dolly De Leon, Woody Harrelson
Runtime: 140 minutes
Written by Goh Yu Ke
Well, if there’s a satirical thought that Ruben Östlund has ever had, it’s coming right up with his latest film, Triangle of Sadness. Unfortunately (or not, depending on one’s predisposal to toilet humour), that’s both a literal and metaphorical statement. This monolith of a film is packed to the rafters with satirical snark and irony; however, in the category of “Palme d’Or winners that deal with contemporary capitalist hypocrisy,” it’s probably fair to say that Triangle of Sadness is no Parasite.
The film follows professional models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya’s (Charlbi Dean) disastrous journey onboard a luxury cruise, which, as one can imagine, makes for a potent breeding ground in satirising the ultra-rich and bourgeoisie. Even before the film launches into this already weighty and nuanced subject, however, it loads on its audience a solid 40 minutes of narrative on buzzword topics such as gender roles, the wage gap, the irony of the fashion industry, and the shallowness of social media: promising, but unfortunately weighted down by a sense of incompleteness, despite the dedicated time.
Carl and Yaya get into a painfully drawn-out argument over who should pay for their nights out, from which none of them emerges very favourably; they make a bet on the strength of their relationship, which fails to inspire very much emotional investment on our part. Much like its complaint about its billionaire subjects, this is a film that’s overly abundant: in its gags, its two and a half hour runtime, and as some may argue, its famous montage of seasickness-induced excretion.
It’s not all bloat and barf, though: the film has a certain bite at points, and I do have to admit a personal grossed-out amusement at the whole vomit sequence, in all its 15-minute-long glory. The film’s unsubtle caricature works brilliantly at times– the lovely old couple who, as it turns out, made their wealth off manufacturing weapons that helped “preserve democracy” gets blown up by one of their own grenades; Russian fertiliser oligarch Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) peels the jewels off his dead lover, all while sobbing over her limp body.
But even if that’s not what you’re watching a Östlund film for, the film’s quieter moments of irony are really what begins to mould its critique into discernable shape. After washing up on a seemingly deserted island after the sinking of the cruise, the social hierarchy is turned on its head when the survivors discover that toilet manager Abigail (Dolly De Leon) is the only one equipped with the skills essential to their survival.
It’s the details that are satisfying to catch in the Östlund ocean of bits and gags and references: though we are made aware of the ridiculousness of Dimitry and fellow billionaire Jarmo’s (Henrik Dorsin) attempt to bribe Abigail into letting them into her safe metal-hulled lifeboat with their expensive watches, we catch her with two watches hanging loosely from her wrist in the morning light. It’s the silliness of Chief Steward Paula’s (Vicki Berlin) continued attempt to please her passengers, even in a life-or-death situation, that really takes the film’s class critique anywhere.
Ultimately, though, the film suffers from a lack of a clear direction in its critique: is it on gender, or class and wealth? We’re offered the beginnings of such critique, but never really an effective tie back to the characters themselves– save perhaps Abigail’s narrative arc. Despite this, however, the cast does an excellent job of working with what they have. Dickinson and Dean do a convincing job of playing attractive models with a suggestion of something more under the surface, but the real standout has to be De Leon, whose lowly cleaner-turned-matriarch is subversive, solidly humorous, and sometimes actually even thought-provoking. Woody Harrelson (who plays the Captain) is comfortable in his reliably fun-to-watch drunk persona, while Burić pulls off his role as an unpleasantly charismatic shit salesman (literally!) with apparent ease.
Triangle of Sadness is an Icarus: an ambitious film that tried to jam in itself too much with too little explication on its way to the sun. Fortunately for it (and its accolade dreams), Ruben Östlund’s given its wings a healthy layer of dazzling cinematic polish, and a metal-hulled lifeboat of a supportive cast to catch it when it falls. It’s rather toothless as social or political critique, but sure is a fun, irreverent watch– just perhaps not anywhere dinnertime.
This article is produced as part of the Film Critics Lab: A Writing Mentorship Programme, organised by *SCAPE and The Filmic Eye, with support from the Singapore Film Society and Sinema.
About the Author
Goh Yu Ke is an English Literature and Film Studies student at the National University of Singapore. When she’s not reading or busy with school, you can find her working through her watchlist of 1940s screwball comedies.