December 2022 – January 2023

Arts & Letters

Louche rich sink ships: Ruben Östlund’s ‘Triangle of Sadness’

By Judith Lucy
The Swedish director’s Palme d’Or–winning satire of the ultra wealthy successfully throws a lot of (literal) crap at the wall

Is there anything more satisfying than watching rich people behaving badly? I’ve always eaten up stories about the Murdochs or the Sackler family, and naturally I’m a fan of Succession and, to some extent, The White Lotus. Both of those series understand how appalling behaviour can be ratcheted up by placing their protagonists in a space from which they can’t escape. (For my money, Succession is the much better show – I’m not always conscious of what its creator, Jesse Armstrong, wants us to think about his characters, whereas it’s very hard to miss Mike White’s intentions with The White Lotus.)

Why is it so much fun to see these people with more money than sense acting so abominably? Because it makes us feel better. Having that amount of cash just seems obscene and, look, it really doesn’t buy you happiness. I do wonder, though, whether some of our enjoyment comes from believing that we would behave so much better if we were the ones with the millions in our bank accounts. We wouldn’t change; we’d be down to earth and delightful. We’d help our friends and family and make the world a better place. For most of us that fantasy will never be tested so we won’t get the chance to discover that it’s a complete nonsense. An unexpected reversal of fortune is one of the many ideas that’s explored in writer/director Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning movie Triangle of Sadness, where shifting ideas of value and worth mean that even a humble cleaner is confronted by what she would do to cling to her moment of being Logan Roy.

From The Square (2017) and Force Majeure (2014), it’s clear that Östlund excels at exposing people’s foibles. In his latest satire he uses this to throw a lot of crap at the wall (and most of it sticks), including gender and racial inequality, the commodification of beauty, the vacuousness of influencers and the hypocrisy of the wealthy. This is all before we get to the actual crap and, believe me, there’s a lot of that too.

Set in the world of the ultra beautiful and the ultra wealthy, Triangle of Sadness opens with a scene where auditioning models are treated little better than accommodating pets by their potential employers. In many areas of life beauty is everything but, as we will continue to see, it doesn’t speak louder than money and this is the first of the many hierarchies the film exposes. At the subsequent fashion show, while gorgeous young things parade in front of slides with phrases such as “Everyone’s equal now” and “Ladies first”, we see audience members moved out of the front row to accommodate others whom we assume are higher up the food chain. In some ways this signposting seems gratuitous, yet Östlund never lets a lack of subtlety get in the way of a point and, for the most part, this actually works, even though his commentary swings from the refined to the gross.

The film’s first act revolves around the models Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and is essentially a two-hander as we follow the striking couple from restaurant to cab to lift to hotel room. At the end of dinner, Yaya makes it clear that she won’t be contributing to the bill by simply saying, “Thank you, honey.” Carl hasn’t offered to pay and we learn that not only does Yaya earn more money than him, but she had also promised to take care of it. The ensuing dialogue tackles everything from gender stereotypes to the persistent taboo around money as a topic of conversation. Carl claims that he wants them to be equal, but no one in this film is really interested in equality. Most of us will recognise this discussion, whether we’ve had it with a partner or even a friend: I’ve certainly echoed Carl’s claim that money is not the point when grudgingly paying for someone else. But as much as we might want to believe that we’re more concerned with the fairness of a situation, money (or at least what it signifies) is always the point. Östlund, aided by terrific performances, squeezes meaning out of every opportunity in these scenes without it ever feeling laboured. When Carl struggles to turn a light switch off in his room, it is both familiar – if you’ve stayed in a hotel in the past decade then you’ve probably had this experience too – and points to how even basic functionality has been lost for the sake of appearance.

The beautiful Yaya is, naturally, also an influencer and knows that the clock is ticking when it comes to both her womb and her worth. Her pragmatic plan is to marry a man whose money won’t dry up when his looks do, a point we don’t forget when the couple, in the film’s second act, joins the passengers on an uber-luxury yacht. Yaya has been invited on the trip so she can post about it and we soon see the gulf between the snap-happy pair of models and the other ridiculously wealthy passengers. Russian fertiliser oligarch Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) and his wife Vera (Sunnyi Melles) have made their money from “selling shit”, but that’s nowhere near as distasteful as the elderly and outwardly genteel Clementine (Amanda Walker) and Winston (Oliver Ford Davies), who have “upheld democracy” by making a fortune manufacturing weapons. I wasn’t entirely sure of the role of Therese (Iris Berben), a stroke victim in a wheelchair who can only utter the line “In der wolken” (“in the clouds”), but perhaps her mantra is a warning to the others – they’re not living in the real world and it won’t be pretty if they fall back to it. The billionaires’ club is completed by a tech giant, Jorma Björkman (Henrik Dorsin) – could he be Yaya’s prospective sugar daddy?

Hierarchies aren’t confined to the passengers. The captain (played with relish by Woody Harrelson) is largely absent, more interested in drinking in his room, leaving the hapless head of staff, Paula (Vicki Berlin), completely responsible. She reminds the largely white crew that the passengers are always right. At least that approach should ensure that they are all rewarded with huge tips at the end of the cruise, unlike the almost invisible cleaning staff who are predominantly from non-white backgrounds. Privilege begets more privilege.

If you’re wealthy enough people will simply do as you say or be forced to agree with you; one passenger insists that her “perfect” experience has been ruined by the yacht’s dirty grey sails, which weren’t in the brochure. The yacht has no sails, in fact, but eventually she’s told that even though they’re non-existent they will, of course, be cleaned. One of the most excruciating scenes involves Vera insisting that a fawning steward (Hanna Oldenburg) swap roles with her, and drink champagne and relax in the pool. Too grown-up to play with dolls, Vera thinks it fun to temporarily elevate those beneath her. How can a staff member decline and say that, no, she has to do her job (you insane wealthy bitch), when her job is to do what she’s been told? Vera will not take no for an answer, and, in the end, every worker is forced to jump off the side of the yacht and down its waterslide, putting them all behind in their preparations for the captain’s dinner.

Paula has already warned the captain that because of oncoming bad weather, this is not the best night for the formal meal, and – if we didn’t already sense that disaster was looming – the cutaway to a painting of crashing waves just as a glass rolls off a table confirms that most of the passengers will soon be wishing that they’d bought a ticket on the cruise liner Poseidon. The scene builds magnificently and, thanks to a storm, seasickness and wealthy people acting, well, like wealthy people, the dinner deteriorates in a way that’s reminiscent of the crassest of comedies. I’m not usually a fan of the disgusting, but I laughed out loud – to see the rich being so beautifully cut down to size is enormously enjoyable. Mother Nature and exploding arses don’t care how much money you have.

The absurdity never lets up as the only two able to cope with the lurching boat are the equally drunk captain and oligarch – one an American Marxist, the other a Russian capitalist – who spout ideologies that are equally useless in the face of the havoc that surrounds them. The episode ends with an explosion, but by that stage Östlund could have thrown in some talking sharks and I would have thought, Sure, why not?

The third act plays out with a handful of survivors on an island and, for me, this is where the film falters. Now we have a different pecking order. Beauty and money are worthless if you don’t know how to make a fire or catch a fish, and the yacht’s lowly toilet manager, Abigail (Dolly De Leon), suddenly holds all the cards. Who can blame her for making the most of it? The heavy-handedness of some of the moments in this final section seems a little unnecessary. Unlike with the masterfully orchestrated chaos on board the boat, I felt removed enough to think that the movie had gone a little White-Lotus-series-one on us.

The end of Triangle of Sadness signals a return to the old order of things, but we wonder how the events of the cruise and the aftermath will ultimately affect the survivors. Actually, we know: the wealthy will go back to living just as they had before. But what will Abigail do now that she has tasted power? If most of us have spent the last couple of hours relating to those closer to the bottom of the ladder, then Abigail’s impulses are pretty confronting. The film ultimately paints a pretty grim picture of us all. Grab a bottle of champagne and watch it as our own ship goes down.

Judith Lucy

Judith Lucy is a comedian, actor, writer, broadcaster and movie nerd.

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