If there was one criticism of Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or-winning The Square, it’s that his satire wasn’t so much shooting fish in a barrel as nuking a pod of whales in a glass of water. Who knew the art world is full of self-obsessed poseurs? His new film, Triangle of Sadness, begins with a series of riffs on how vacuous the high fashion world is.
Clark (Harris Dickinson) is a male model who appears to be on the verge of irrelevance. He’s paid a third of what his model/influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) earns and flinches at having to pick up the bill for her, getting into an argument about gender roles which is half-Jordan Peterson and half-plain stingy. Starting as an embarrassing tiff in the restaurant, it continues in a taxi with a wonky rear window wiper and explodes in the middle of the sliding door of the hotel elevator. The structure of the argument will be repeated throughout the film.
Conflict won’t be let go. No one can simply let something lie. A moment will be extended, then a bit more, then a bit more, then another bit. The satire will become outrageous to the nth degree. Östlund’s characters are so clever in twisting themselves into the stupidest of knots and getting themselves into the worst situations as a result. The second act takes place on a luxury cruise where Yaya and Clark find themselves among the super-rich. The self proclaimed King of Shit, a fertiliser billionaire Dimitriy (Zlatko Burić, who was so good in Pusher 3) has brought both his wife and his mistress and has Nutella flown in by helicopter. A lonely billionaire is sharking after a trophy wife.
The staff eagerly cater to their guests every whim, firing crew for the least reason and at one point getting the entire staff to take a swim, which looks as fun as Pasolini’s Saló. Before you can say Mister Creosote, an alcoholic Marxist captain (played with sodden verve by Woody Harrelson), a low weather system and nouveau cuisine combine for a grotesque breakdown in society. Just when you think it can’t get any worse, it does. And then worse still.
There is an incredible cruelty to these scenes. Östlund’s motto could easily be, ‘It’s only funny until someone gets hurt – and then it’s hilarious’. Many have criticised the satire as too obvious, but satire was never meant to be subtle. It’s a hammer rather than tweezers. The final act gives us a shipwreck and a reversal of fortunes that sees the toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon) taking charge and leveraging her survival skills and store of pretzel sticks for power and sex.
Östlund has created a full-throated, roaring comedy of hate against the upper-classes. It is cynical, nihilistic and has no issue about punching down – a stroke victim is used as a punchline several times – though it spends most of its time punching up, aiming squarely (or triangularly to punch society’s face in the face). There are no bromides about how we’re all human and we should come together – in fact there’s an extended riff on how cynically the rich praise equality, like the pogrom enthusiasts belatedly pleading for world peace. These motherfuckers have been riding high on the hog for too long and its about time we got to see them slipping about in their own vomit and excrement. Östlund obliges.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty