Bold and in-your-face, Ruben Ostlund’s satirical black comedy ‘Triangle of Sadness’ goes all out in depicting the absurdity of the excesses of the rich and affluent while building a biting commentary on class inequality and the distribution of wealth and power. The film is not afraid to get didactic as characters have extended dialogues (and monologues) regarding gender norms and a drunken battle of words between a Marxist captain of a 250 million dollar yacht (played by Woody Harrelson) and a Russian capitalist oligarch (played by Zlatco Buric) while the aforementioned yacht is being bombarded by a storm and threatens to capsize. Everything is then turned on its head by its revelatory third act that binds everything together. It’s a tonal challenge to maintain the dark and (oftentimes vulgar) satire for its 149-minute running time, but the imagery along with the excellent performances keep you on your seats and eyes transfixed to the screen.
‘Triangle of Sadness’ is not a conventional movie by any sense of the word. From the get-go, the satire hits hard as the film explores and pokes fun at all its characters. To ground us to a storyline, we follow the model and influencer couple Carl and Yaya (played by Harris Dickinson and the late Charlbi Dean, respectively), as they navigate the power struggles within their own relationship as they are invited to join a cruise (for free) on a yacht for the extremely wealthy. Through Carl and Yaya, we are introduced to the other guests onboard like Russian capitalist oligarch Dimitry; Therese (Iris Berben), a woman who suffered a stroke and can only utter one phrase in German; Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), a lonely tech millionaire; an old couple, who made their fortune selling weapons; and the rest.
On the yacht, the rich engage in their most indulgent of whims and the hapless crew must cater to their every desire. Led by Paula (Vicki Berlin), the crew and staff work tirelessly to ensure the guests get everything they want and desire, even if those desires run contrary to the rules or the safety of the ship.
For over an hour and a half, we are presented with a vast display of absurd requests and acts of great entitlement and privilege from the wealthy class. It’s writer and director Ruben Ostlund’s way for us to set a moral line before he turns everything over its head.
Past the halfway point of the film, the narrative finally reaches its inciting incident and a storm crashes into the ship sending the whole yacht into a frenzy. It’s a well-executed scene as the whole ship tosses and turns. People get sick. They vomit and defecate everywhere. They lose their balance and stumble and fall. Visually, it’s a reprisal of what we just saw unfold in the first hour and a half. It’s brutal and grotesque but also weirdly humorous.
But the movie doesn’t end there. The third act is an entirely different movie altogether where the structures in place have been overturned and the rules of the game have changed. This is when Abigail (played with great power and nuance by Dolly De Leon), a toilet manager on the yacht, finds her footing in the circumstances that follow and puts her in a position of power that continues Ostlund’s criticism of society and the way things are.
Throughout the storm sequence, Harrelson’s captain and Buric’s Dimitry drunkenly argue over the ideologies of Marxism and capitalism and all of this now is evidently played out in the third act. Everything that was deemed important in the first two acts have been stripped away. It is in the way people change and how relationships shift and turn in the third act that we can see what it is that Ostlund is trying to do and what he is commenting on.
Almost invisible in the first two acts, Dolly De Leon’s Abigail takes center stage and the Marxist ideologies start to come to the fore. This movie is all about power and the struggles that come with navigating its complexities. It begins first with Carl and Yaya’s relationships and the expectations of gender roles then branches out to the yacht with all the excesses of the extremely wealthy and their absurd whims. Finally, when you take away all the frills and the luxuries that don’t really matter in the day-to-day of things, priorities shift and new power structures are formed.
Ostlund’s ‘Triangle of Sadness’ has a way of demonizing and villainizing all the characters who have power. With an ending that is filled to the brim with irony and a final insult to the characters in the film, ‘Triangle of Sadness’ offers us no real solution or catharsis for what we just witnessed because we are being asked how complicit we are to the systems that are in place that makes these inequalities so blatant. To laugh at this (and it is funny) is to recognise the truth of what the film is saying. And we have done nothing.