To describe Triangle of Sadness as a satire, whilst technically correct, feels woefully inadequate once you’ve experienced the full barrage of what Ruben Ostlund’s latest film – and his second in a row to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes – has to offer. Befitting its titular shape, this is three satires in one, all with different targets and all set in different places (though putting the same characters through the various wringers) and the sheer loudness of it all makes Ostlund’s relatively gaudy art-world satire The Square looks positively academic. This is a scathing, and often hilarious, look at humanity with all the subtlety and nuance of a loud fart in a crowded room.
Divided into three chapters, the only real constants of Triangle of Sadness are young and pretty couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who tragically died aged just 32 earlier this year), a pair of models whose relationship is approaching rocky territory. We first meet them in an unspecified Scandi hotel, where Carl is trying out for a modelling gig before they get into a big fight about who should foot the bill for their fancy dinner. Here, Ostlund’s target is the fashion industry, but he soon shifts targets to the wealthy one percent once we move the action to a luxury superyacht – for which Yaya has managed to get two tickets thanks to her influencer status – before widening his scope to the human condition as a whole once the ship runs aground on an idyllic but isolated island.
If this all sounds like Ostlund might have bitten off more than he can chew, he sort of has, especially towards the overextended final act, where his grand proclamations about the human animal don’t land with much sting (also, at 150 minutes, it all runs a bit long for a bawdy comedy). Yet, thankfully, the journey towards this ending is mostly an absolute riot. Ostlund’s script skewers the awful hypocrisy of the privileged, whether it’s Carl attempting to justify his own laziness and insecurities through poorly thought out structural critiques of society or Woody Harrelson’s Thomas, the captain of the superyacht, claiming to subscribe to Marxism but never taking into account the feelings or needs of his underlings.
Of course, the sharpest barbs are saved for the mega-rich themselves, a collection of old white grotesques, including a Brit complaining about new UN restrictions on landmines reducing his profits and a Russian fertiliser magnate who refers to himself as ‘the king of shit’ (he’s one of the more likable characters on display here). It’s not all just quick-witted dialogue putting these people in their place, though, and Ostlund conjures up some of the most ambitious comic set-pieces of his career here.
An early argument between Carl and Yaya, conducted through rapidly opening and closing elevator doors, earns proper belly laughs in its pathetic absurdity – Dickinson is absolutely superb throughout, showing how Carl can grasp onto the thinnest threads of dignity in the most absurd situations while also being an absolute dingus. The big showstopper sequence – already much trailed and talked about – is on another level entirely though.
One of the many ludicrous requests from the guests – Ostlund is very good at showing the pathological need of the rich to have people acquiesce to them – leads to a bunch of seafood spoiling before a big dinner, which coincides with a major storm. Needless to say, this combination is a stomach-turning one, and it’s not long before all the richest, oldest, and grossest passengers are spewing from both ends into toilets that soon overflow, before the seawater from the storm destroys the ship’s drainage entirely. It’s a half-hour opera of vomit and shit, as technically ambitious as it is disgusting, that will leave you laughing, retching, and maybe even in a strange sense of awe.
It’s the crescendo of the entire film, and Ostlund makes the absolute most of it, though it does mean everything on the island afterwards can feel a bit anticlimactic, going from Grand Guignol to Lord of the Flies ripoff rather quickly. There’s still a lot of very funny stuff here though – all the surviving idiot blokes learning how to adjust to life in the wild is loads of fun – and Dolly De Leon gives a great performance as Abigail, part of the invisible Filipino cleaning staff on the boat, but soon elevated to Captain of the Island thanks to her fishing and fire-building skills.
There’s some interesting stuff to glean from this society-in-miniature about how we determine a person’s practical value, and how quickly those values can become obsolete, but there’s also a lot of stuff here that feels like a copout, undermining the message Ostlund is sending elsewhere. Triangle of Sadness is maybe not always quite as clever or cutting as it’d like to be but it’s also never taking itself *too* seriously. A fart in a crowded room might not be all that witty but, if it’s funny and gross enough, it is rather unforgettable.