Imagine what it’d be like to take a luxury yacht cruise. Sounds like a nice excursion away from the mundane, doesn’t it? Fine dining, swimming, working on your suntan, meeting interesting people and maybe having a nice cocktail or two. However, what if you happen to be on the same ship with obnoxious rich folks, incompetent pirates, insufferable influencers, spoiled food for dinner, a plumbing system that doesn’t work, an overworked crew, a half-drunk captain, sea sickness and a nasty storm? Well, you might end up being part of one of the best movies of 2022: “Triangle of Sadness.”
Directed and written by Ruben Östlund, “Triangle of Sadness” follows Carl (Harris Dickinson), a male model and his vapid influencer girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean). After a ridiculous argument over a dinner check and a debate about gender roles, the two are invited to cruise aboard a luxury yacht for a social media promotion, where Carl intends to get Yaya to fall for him. However, things become ridiculous when they meet the other passengers and the crew: Dimitry and Vera (Zlatko Buric and Sunnyi Melles), a couple of obnoxious Russian oligarchs; Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), a lonely tech mogul; Paula (Vicki Berlin), the ship’s sycophantic head of staff; Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a janitor with a strong distaste for the bourgeois passengers; and The Captain (Woody Harrelson), a drunk shaking his fist against the classism of the system. Things quickly descend into absurd anarchy as the entire crew and passengers of the ship find their cruise to be anything but uneventful and eventually have their entire worlds upended.
The upper crust has had a hard time of it in cinema lately: “Knives Out,” “Parasite,” “Glass Onion,” “Joker,” “The Menu,” and now “Triangle of Sadness.” This Palme d’Or winning film has earned its share of contention among critics who have dismissed the film as being too on-the-nose and too unrefined, in comparison to some of the aforementioned films. Considering the director’s prior work, “The Square,” it is no surprise Ruben Östlund has contemporary sociopolitics in mind, like the directors of those earlier films, but it’s only from the mind of this director that such an overtly rancorous yet insightful movie could’ve been made.
The film doesn’t show its dark, absurdist satire straight away. The first act of the movie is a serious drama: an argument between Carl and Yaya about who picks up the check. It’s here that the movie engages in its discourse about the nature of gender roles in relation to money and influence, a topic that occurs again in the third act. The director weaves the entire scene together through its dialogue, displaying Yaya as much more successful and influential when compared to her boyfriend Carl. It’s here that Östlund displays an underlying intellect to the film in preparation of what’s to come as the movie shunts subtlety to the background, voyaging onward as the plot reaches it’s absurd and eventually outrageous second act where the director clearly has a field day with putting its bourgeois characters in some of the most uncomfortable situations, both social and other wise, imaginable.
Whereas the first act teased the audience with smartly written yet ordinary dialogue, the second act utilizes its performances, mise-en-scene and writing to create an unforgettable black comedy that is ever mindful about its central themes of class divisions. From the moment Yaya and Carl are aboard, the narrative sets out the who’s who on board: the wealthy passengers sunbathing on top, the staff who demean themselves for a tip serving under them and the rest of the crew below decks who keep everything running. With those stratifications established, the mise-en-scene helps heighten the uncomfortableness of the sequences, such as the use of flies buzzing in the background, the narrow hallways, the clattering of stemware, the raging storm outside and even the rocking back and forth of the ship. The ensemble cast’s performances is where the film shines as each of the characters display the ridiculous foibles of the lives of the ultra-wealthy, the insipid preening of influencers and the subdued reluctant sycophancy of the staff. It’s in the last twenty minutes of the second act where everything reaches such a ridiculous crescendo that will leave audiences stunned on a first viewing.
Despite all the movie’s strengths, the film is tripped up by its third act. The film slows down until it reaches its finale, all the while trying to return to the tone and pacing of the first act as the film satirically comments on how the ultra-rich can’t survive on their own and how power can corrupt anyone once they have it. It’s a good third act in theory, but the haphazard, painfully slow execution detracts from what otherwise would have been an impeccable film. Regardless, the movie is deserving of its 2022 Cannes Film Festival award and is one of the best pieces of satire in film in years.
Kelly Baker is an alumnus of West Chester University.