By Marc S. Sanders
I’ve noted before that the value of satire lives off how divisive it is within audiences. Satire will drive home a perspective by going to the extreme to maintain order or deliver a sense of logic that needs to be prompted. Ruben Östlund’s Oscar nominated film Triangle Of Sadness explores how a rank in social class values itself and what’s beneath them in different scenarios. I do not think there is room to argue with the message delivered in the film. However, for all the reasons I liked the film, in turn my wife hated the picture. Yet, I can’t blame her. The message is just. The message is sound. The envelope it was delivered in is quite grotesque, though. I guess that is how satire should be served.
When your dependence on others becomes so reserved to only what your stature and money pays for, then what will you do when that assured reliance is absent from what you live for? Ruben Östlund will have you believe you could end up getting violently sick, drowning in your own feces, and propagandized with debates about the needs for communism vs capitalism. Then again, you could just be pirated by scavengers and shipwrecked on an uncharted island.
Östlund begins his picture with cattle of chiseled male models auditioning for a catwalk stroll. Carl (Harris Dickinson) is asked to adjust his “triangle of sadness” – the area identified between someone’s eyebrows and above their nose. Carl acquiesces, but I never saw the difference. The casting agents apparently did, and it is implied that Carl is past his prime. In the next scene, he’s in the front row of an audience ready to watch a fashion show, and he’s asked to move down the row of chairs until there are no seats left. He’s left to take a seat in the back. He no longer carries any value in the world of modeling. More importantly, because he has only been a male model with good looks, he is no longer a value in any world, anywhere.
Following this pretext, we are introduced to Part I (“Carl & Yaya”) of a trilogy of chapters involving Carl and his model/social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean). Östlund stages a scene duet with his characters at a restaurant table debating about who is going to pay the bill. Yaya makes more money, but Carl is the man. What is appropriate here? What is the societal norm? The conversation turns into a tense exchange between boyfriend and girlfriend, that carries over to an elevator ride and I don’t recall any kind of resolution coming from any of it.
The centerpiece of the film is Part II (“The Yacht”) where Yaya has been complimentary invited to sail on a small, luxury yacht with other passengers, all stemming from the most elite and wealthy social class. Yaya’s influence will lend testimony to the vacation voyage. Carl is her plus one. The other passengers include a husband who made his fortune “selling shit,” or more appropriately, fertilizer. Another couple are thriving off their success selling hand grenades worldwide. The staff of the yacht have a rah-rah session led by their cruise director, Paula (Vicki Berlin), who stresses that whatever the passengers say or need is right and should be completely satisfied. What will that lead to? Better tips!!!!!! WOO HOO!!!!! She gets the primarily white and attractive looking staff in a clapping and stomping frenzy of enthusiasm for the voyage while the maintenance crew of darker skinned minorities are on the deck below waiting to clean or do housekeeping with no sense of gratitude for their service. What’s in it for these people on the bottom deck?
Part II of Triangle Of Sadness really drives home the point of the picture. These wealthy folks rely on their satisfaction based upon how they are catered. Carl thinks he is so elite that he inadvertently gets a maintenance man fired for cleaning the boat while shirtless. A woman insists the sails are unclean compared to the pictures in the brochure. Paula will ensure it is addressed. Another woman insists that all the staff do a swim with her. The cooking staff has to prepare for the Captain’s dinner. If they swim, the food risks getting spoiled. Doesn’t matter though. This passenger has asked for a staff swim and Paula will make certain the upper class are accustomed. It doesn’t help either that the Captain (Woody Harrelson) – the man in charge – refuses to leave his cabin and thus no one with authority is steering the ship away from choppy waters and a violent storm. As such, the Captain’s dinner is going to be unforgettable for sure.
Part III is known as the “The Island” which depicts a turn of events when seven surviving people are marooned on a desert island following the graphic complications of that doomed dinner at sea. Dynamics in social class take a drastic turn here. The rich and privileged don’t know how to fish or build a fire. So, what happens when a maintenance worker does?
The message of Ruben Östlund’s film is not surprising to me. Yet, how many of us forget that we all biologically evolve the exact same way. We come from the womb with the same appendages and capabilities to eat, breathe, learn, and digest. Eventually we all face the same demise. What I appreciate about the movie though is how many people of a wealthy social class are incapable of fending for themselves, even in the most desperate of situations. What can a social media influencer do for her fellow man or woman beyond taking endless selfies of herself? How can a man who profits off of selling fertilizer or hand grenades survive with just the raw materials of the earth? How can a woman suffering from the aftereffects of a stroke with limited communication make due for herself?
Östlund’s script examines the dependability of one for the other, and how it is taken for granted. The dependability is not from equal peers though. Östlund goes a step further when the one positioned lowest on the pole turns herself into the highest rank when any kind governing mandate is dismissed. In any community, opportunity will allow someone to always usurp the higher cabal and assume his/her own dominance.
There are many ways to deliver the message of what is unfair or what is right in a social class system. I don’t think I risk much by declaring that anyone who watches Triangle Of Sadness should have a presumption of extending value and appreciation to his/her fellow neighbors, even if we don’t always live by that mantra. What will divide audiences of this satire though is in the route that Ruben Östlund adopts to make his point. In The Three Stooges, the wealthy would lose their dignity and authority when they got struck with a pie to the face, humiliated by the well-known vagabonds. Here, the wealthy gradually toss their cookies as the boat continues to toss and turn with no Captain at the wheel, while they all continually try to consume the fancy prepared entrees that are not agreeing with them. I could tolerate and laugh at that ugliness that surfaces during Part II of Östlund’s film. My wife could not. I can appreciate a good pie splattered in someone’s deserving kisser as well. My wife doesn’t like The Three Stooges. However, the point is what we agree upon. The approach is where we differ. My wife could have done without watching endless streams of vomit spew across the dining room or toilets bubbling over with brown sewage. I can’t fault her for that, though. It is disgusting. It’s supposed to be. I wouldn’t want to watch my wife or child get violently ill. For that matter, I wouldn’t want to watch anyone in real life succumb to that state of helplessness. Fictionalized mediums allow that opportunity though.
An interesting angle that Ruben Östlund takes is as the ship is spiraling out of control, the Captain engages in a drunken debate with the wealthy fertilizer seller on the positives of communism vs capitalism. Both men use the loudspeaker to preach the gospel of celebrated leaders like John F Kennedy and Karl Marx. Our leaders are arguing. The constituents of this doomed boat have no choice but to listen, all the while they are drowning in their own vomit and shit. These are just words that our leaders are drunkenly shouting. Heck, these guys didn’t even write these policies. They stole them from pioneers before them. Where’s the execution leading to a salvation for their community, though?
As I continue to write this column, it occurs to me how much I listen to the guidance of others. A doctor tells me what pills to take. An article will explain what foods are bad for me. A politician will tell me his or her platform is the best course. I write critiques of movies encouraging readers like you to watch or avoid. These are all sources of authority that we are exposed to everyday. Triangle Of Sadness explores what occurs when those sources are taken away and we are each individually left to our own devices. Maybe Ruben Östlund’s testament is that only the meek shall inherit the earth.
I can not promise that you’ll like Triangle Of Sadness. You will appreciate the message though, and whether you care to or not, you will think about it for a while after it is over. Hence, another satire has done its job.
2 thoughts on “TRIANGLE OF SADNESS”
Thank you so much! I’m keen to watch it now. I love multi layered films. Terry
Thanks for reading Terry. I’d be interested to read what you thought of the film.