'Triangle of Sadness': Ruben Ostlund's wild ride - film review

It’s a wild ride that takes aim at some pretty easy targets, but makes a few good points and, more importantly, is funny much of the time

 ‘TRIANGLE OF Sadness’  (photo credit: FREDRIK WENZEL/PLATTFORM PRODUKTION)
‘TRIANGLE OF Sadness’
(photo credit: FREDRIK WENZEL/PLATTFORM PRODUKTION)

Ruben Ostlund’s Triangle of Sadness, which opens in theaters throughout Israel on October 6, is an over-the-top satire about the class system in the social-media age, along with some commentary about how traditional male and female roles are and aren’t changing. 

It’s a wild ride that takes aim at some pretty easy targets, but makes a few good points and, more importantly, is funny much of the time. If Tom Wolfe came back to life and wrote a screenplay for a young Jean-Luc Godard to direct, it might play something like this. 

The movie opened the Jerusalem Film Festival this summer – Ostlund was the guest of honor – and it won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. This was a triumph for Ostlund, particularly since his 2017 film, The Square, a skewering of the wild pretensions of the art world, also won the Palme d’Or. 

Triangle’s win placed the director in a small and very distinguished group of two-time Cannes winners. His 2014 film, Force Majeure, about a family man on vacation who fails miserably at a true test of courage, also won great acclaim and was remade as Downhill with Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Ostlund, who has a background in documentary filmmaking, is a rarity among acclaimed European directors in that he seems incapable of writing a boring screenplay. 

 RUBEN OSTLUND winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (credit: Paul Smith) RUBEN OSTLUND winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes. (credit: Paul Smith)

Triangle of Sadness, first third

The title, Triangle of Sadness, is a phrase a casting director for a commercial tells models when asking them to relax the part of their faces that reveals worry and care. We join this casting session early in the movie, as Carl (Harris Dickinson), an aspiring male model, struts shirtless to audition for a part. 

Carl and the other blank-faced young men with hairless chests are competing in an industry that, we are told, is one of the few where women out-earn men by a wide margin. The opening third of the movie focuses on Carl and his girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean, a South African actress who died suddenly at age 32 in August, and who gave a playful and appealing performance here), a more successful model who is building a career as a social-media influencer. 

Yaya is planning to model until she can snag a billionaire, while Carl professes true feelings for her. They conduct their relationship arguments in whispers when they join a cruise on a $250-million private yacht.

Triangle of Sadness, second third

On this yacht, Yaya and Carl don’t quite fit in with the rest of the super-rich passengers. They are there because they are beautiful and a little famous; they’re Instagram-ing for their supper. 

Perhaps the movie’s message about the current tension between the haves and have-nots is conveyed best in a scene where a passenger insists that a hard-working crew member drop her duties and “enjoy the moment.” Afraid to refuse her, the crew member and several others joylessly go down a water slide and the passenger is sure she has done them a great favor, but we know better. 

We get to know some of the other passengers, who include a lovely elderly couple named Winston and Clementine who made their fortune selling arms – their names must refer to the Churchills and are meant as an ironic commentary, typical of the film’s sometimes heavy-handed approach. 

There is also Dimitry (Zlato Buric), a loud, heavy, crude Russian, who has made a fortune selling fertilizer (note previous comment about heavy-handedness), who in the movie’s centerpiece, gets into a drunken argument with the captain (Woody Harrelson at his unhinged best). The joke here – and it works well – is that Dimitry is a fervent capitalist, who quotes Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, while the captain is a devotee of Marx, Lenin and other Communist thinkers.

But while they are arguing, a storm blows in that makes everyone sick, and their seasickness is shown in graphic detail, complete with exploding toilets – you get the idea – and finally, the ship goes down. 

Triangle of Sadness, final third

THE FINAL third of the movie is set on an island, where the survivors act out the classic theme of what happens when all the conventions of civilization are thrown away. Money has no meaning on the island, but good looks are still a kind of currency. 

I won’t reveal any spoilers here, but suffice it to say that the lowliest employee on board the ship possesses skills that the rich passengers lack. Suddenly, this employee is in control of everyone and everything left from the yacht. Watching this reversal of fortune play out is quite entertaining. 

What inspired the movie?

This is a story that has been told many times and in many formats. Its most famous incarnation was as a 1902 play by J.M. Barrie called The Admirable Crichton, about a shipwreck in which British aristocrats have to depend on their butler. 

However, when I interviewed Ostlund in Jerusalem at the festival, he said was unfamiliar with the play. “It’s a servant and a master, right? I have not seen it... people have told me about it. The island has been used many times before to take away civilization and take away hierarchies. And in all my films, I have been interested in sociology and human behavior and looking at human behavior from the context rather than pointing fingers at the individual. 

“I am so sick and tired of the Anglo-Saxon storytelling about a bad guy and a good guy and that’s how we explain the world... In the beginning, the woman is using her looks as a currency and in the end, the young man is using his... It’s a way to understand ourselves without putting guilt on ourselves over and over again.”

“I am so sick and tired of the Anglo-Saxon storytelling about a bad guy and a good guy and that’s how we explain the world... In the beginning, the woman is using her looks as a currency and in the end, the young man is using his... It’s a way to understand ourselves without putting guilt on ourselves over and over again.”

Ruben Ostlund

Ostlund was full of energy after touring Mahaneh Yehuda, the morning after he led the entire crowd at the festival opening in a “primal scream,” all the better to wake people up following the inevitable procession of speech-makers before the movie. 

It wasn’t the first time he has elicited screams from an audience, he said. “It happened two times after I won the Golden Palm that I’ve done it,” he said. “The first time I did it was in Sweden, when I was winning the award in 2015 for Best Film for Force Majeure. I thought it was a beautiful image to have at an awards ceremony, all these people in tuxedos screaming out. After that, it became a little bit of a tradition.”

Asked why he chose to attend the Jerusalem Film Festival, out of the many invitations he surely receives, he said, “I definitely wanted to go here and to be in Israel; I’ve been invited many times. When I heard about the opening screening in the amphitheater, I was super curious. I really wanted to see what that is like.” 

He also wanted to get to know the Israeli distributors, as well as the filmmaking and film-going community here. “The unique thing with the cinema is that we are watching things together. It’s not about the quality of the sound or blah blah blah. It’s that when we are watching things together.

“Basically, the cinema is a democratic room. It’s one of the few places where we meet outside the digital world these days. For me, the cinema is more unique now than it was 20 years ago, because then we were meeting in the analog world in a huge, different way. I like actually to go these screenings and talk about that and remind people of that. 

“I’m so tired of that feeling of, ‘Oh, it was so much better back then when we sold more tickets.’ Sorry, we will never sell as many tickets as we did before the Internet. But don’t be sad about that, because we have a greater mission now; it’s more important for our society.”

OSTLUND IS fascinated by ideological extremes and refuses to let himself be pinned down, a tendency he traces back to his childhood. 

“My mother is still a person who considers herself a communist. My whole upbringing is that capitalism and socialism were representing two football teams, and you can’t talk about the good parts of the market economy, or the good parts of socialism.

“In the US, you can’t even use the word socialism, because they feel it’s so controversial, and you can’t even use the word capitalism with the left in Sweden. It’s this absurdity that we are stuck with, these two football teams, instead of trying to look at how we can develop society in the best possible way, using both ideologies, so to speak.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising considering his success, but Ostlund has an unusual degree of optimism, particularly for an intellectual in the arts. Just before he left to see more of Jerusalem, he articulated part of the philosophy that shaped the story in Triangle.

“In the core, I really believe that human beings are great at collaborating. I believe we are great at working together and that’s what has made us into a very successful species. When I was doing research on shipwreck situations and catastrophes that have left people in extreme situations, people are working together, there are very few conflicts. We accept new hierarchies. 

“A lot of the prejudice about how to survive on a deserted island comes from Lord of the Flies, and the author of Lord of the Flies had terrible parents; he was a very dark-minded guy. And we use this for a reference about what happens when you take away culture, but it’s not true, it’s a myth.”