With so much to laugh—and cry—about in today’s topsy-turvy world, the challenge of directing a social comedy in 2022 is to not go overboard (see Russell, David O.) and get too heavy-handed. In America, the political and cultural landscape is so over-the-top, people and events that 25-years ago would have seemed ridiculous are now real. So how do you satirize something that has already reached the level of self-satire? Perhaps being once removed from the American circus has enabled Swedish director Ruben Östlund (“The Square,” Force Majeure”) to create a film like “Triangle of Sadness” that is both viciously funny and heartbreaking.
Östlund, who also wrote the screenplay, deftly sets up an adventure that exposes the uber-rich and the unequal class structure that wealth engenders. Divided into chapters almost like a picaresque novel, the film follows the fortunes of a celebrity model couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean). Although both are young, successful and beautiful, they argue about who’s going pick up the check for dinner. It’s a bit tedious and not all that funny but the film is just revving its engine.
As social media influencers, Yaya and Carl are invited on an ultra-luxury cruise to pose and post pictures of themselves on Instagram. As rich and beautiful as they are, they are parasites among the ship’s cast of the filthy rich. There’s the Russian capitalist Dimitry (Zlato Buric) and his entourage. When asked how he’s made his money, he says, “shit.” He makes fertilizer from manure. An elderly British couple (Oliver Ford Davies and Amada Walker) may seem harmless but they’ve made their fortune manufacturing landmines and hand grenades. And just for fun, a bored heiress (Sunnyi Melles) demands that a ship’s on-duty waitress jump in the pool, and the entire staff follows. And so on.
In chapter three, a metaphorical and literal storm is coming and rough seas are ahead. Mayhem ensues. Drawing heavily on slapstick humor and silent comedies, this section is the most hilarious and unhinged part of the film. Projectiles of vomit, carts sliding from one side of the boat to the other, toilets exploding and shooting raw sewage at the passengers. Pratfalls are always funny but when they’re happening to such horrible people, they seem even funnier. With puke on your pants it’s hard to be self-important. Social distinctions between passengers and crew melt away.
Östlund next shifts to a more surrealist tone without missing a beat. The ship’s captain (Woody Harrelson, in a scene-chewing cameo) and Dimitry drink themselves under the table. The captain, it turns out, is a Marxist and an alcoholic. He gets so drunk that he starts reading the Communist Manifesto over the ship’s loudspeaker. The incongruity of it all, yet with an internal logic, suggests a Bunuel satire of the bourgeoisie on steroids.
When the inevitable happens and the boat sinks, it is every man, woman, master and slave for themselves. YaYa and Carl, a few billionaires and a cleaning lady land on a deserted island. The center doesn’t hold and the social hierarchy predictably breaks down. Though Abigail (Dolly De Leon) has been the lowest of the low scrubbing toilets on the boat, on the island she is king because she possesses the currency that matters most—she knows how to catch fish and make a fire. The performance by De Leon is one of the most ferocious and commanding of any film this year. She projects an inner dignity and strength that transcends her position in life.
On the island, the bond between YaYa and Carl shifts and he winds up as Abigail’s lover. It’s a set-up reminiscent of Lina Wertmuller’s 1974 class comedy, “Swept Away,” in which one’s lot in life is proven to be arbitrary and fragile. Östlund could have milked the situation for easy laughs but instead sets his sights on a deeper truth. The spectacle of a beautiful fashion model and a maid together is not just an economic necessity for survival, there is genuine feeling to it. The tenderness of the relationship makes the ending that much more devastating and sad.
The Triangle of Sadness of the title refers to the spot on the forehead between the eyes where wrinkles develop and is botoxed away by fashion models. I would guess that Östlund knows that area on the forehead is also the position of the third eye. There’s a world of difference between a point of superficial beauty to be manipulated and monetized in our capitalist culture and the gateway to the soul in spiritual teachings. In the end, it all depends on how you look at it.