Ship of fools: ‘Triangle of Sadness’

Listening to a Russian oligarch and an American luxury yacht captain drunkenly exchange clichés about socialism versus capitalism over the ship’s PA system strikes me as farce without tragedy — and the joke is that it’s Woody Harrelson as the captain whose aggressive about socialism and the Russian who sounds like an OAN reporter. Good for a couple of chuckles, Triangle of Sadness won the Palme d’Or at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, the second for writer-director Ruben Östlund (The Square).The Swede knows his Buñuel: he thinks he has made a satire of the super-rich as hearty as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie or, better, The Exterminating Angel. Besides being fresher, Buñuel’s films don’t once pretend these aren’t anything but scum with nothing to offer; his camera doesn’t linger on their finery, their wine selections, or their jewels, though the $35 budgets he worked with until the mid 1960s made the opulence of rented coats and thrift store skirts harder, I suppose.

Boy, does Östlund punch these rotters. In a prefatory sequence comprising friezes reminiscent of the work of fellow Swede Roy Andersson, Carl (Beach Rats‘ Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) flit through scenes written to illustrate their venality. Despite making more money (they’re on the yacht as a freebie), Yaya in a passive-aggressive manner expects Carl to pick up dinner checks. Carl haplessly shares his received feminism: “You don’t think [making money] isn’t tied to gender roles?” Dickinson, who plays a model who’s cool about being exploited, has a talent for the double take; he moves through luxury like a person in an ill-fitting suit, and Dean as an “influencer” makes her cartoon vivid. They’re the only humans on a ship whose other guests include Amanda Walker and Oliver Ford Davies as a couple who’ve earned their fortune in hand grenades (UN regulations have, alas, cost them 25% of their profits) and Sunnyi Melles as a narcissist who demands that the crew strip and swim in the sea.

Watch this before or after Glass Onion and two trends emerge. First, the narrative coils of the disaster-flick-meets-Agatha-Christie are for audiences these days the right kind of strangulation. Second, and most important, the film community must meet a lot of cheerfully amoral plutocrats like Zlatko Burić’s Dimitry. Credit — blame — the success of Parasite, Bong Joon-ho’s Best Picture winner about, in part, the poor seeking vengeance against the rich but which suggested class envy as a motivator. I haven’t watched the film since November 2019, but I don’t remember Bong making a rancid joke at the family’s expense — they’re too well-drawn and exuberantly played, for one — nor did his premise rely on cynicism. Buñuel himself in Viridiana depicted a beggars’ raid on the master’s house, but by 1962 his mildly Surrealist loyalties manifested as a spirit of benign, ersatz anarchism; he and the audience had fun at everyone’s expense, as shown in the film’s culmination, a schoolboy’s joke.

By contrast Östlund’s dull compositional sense lets his schoolboy jokes unfold longer than necessary. Intent on serving meals in the middle of what looks like a typhoon, the yacht staff watches as seasick guests, one by one, vomit gallons onto the floor: rivers of vomit and shit at one point, a parody of Titanic‘s corridors of water and a nod to Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties with its vats of feces. The shipwrecked guests hold fast to their class prerogatives, which the crew insists on preserving. With one exception. On deck the ship’s “toilet manager,” Abigail takes over when the stranded survivors, who have no clue how to fish or light fires on their island, realize they need her. Dolly De Leon, stern and unyielding, takes over the last third of the film: you wouldn’t want to mess with her. Acquaintances have (lightly) praised Triangle of Sadness for allowing an Asian actress (De Leon is Filipino) some agency as opposed to Todd Smith’s Tár, where Cate Blanchett’s eponymous conductor winds up in Thailand and/or the Philippines analyzing a piece of music to a crowd of passive Asian cosplayers; but, as Nathaniel Rogers remarked in a conversation about Triangle of Sadness, what or whom exactly are we rooting for when Abigail leads this pathetic gaggle? She takes her job as toilet manager seriously, as much as Vicki Berlin’s Paula does as crew manager. The difference is, one can imagine Abigail in a starched white uniform barking orders to the kitchen and wait staff while Paula is helpless on the island, which is Östlund’s point, I guess: POC can be martinets too. At least he doesn’t treat her unofficial “promotion” as a shock: as Rogers points out, De Leon had me grinning from her first appearance.

The Square, Östlund’s other Cannes-garlanded effort, offered the art world as a milieu deserving a satire. He must be a hit at parties much like the ones he loves filming: he’ll tell you, scotch in hand, over a plate of sea urchin with a seaweed emulsion, what’s wrong with the privileged. Triangle of Sadness, I must concede, does move. I wasn’t bored, nor did it flatten me like The Square. But “privilege” isn’t a subject for a medium as literalizing as film. Privilege is a symptom. In Benediction, likely my favorite film of 2022, Terence Davies shows how money and connections allowed gay poets like Siegfried Sassoon a bit of wiggle room in an England still disgusted by the Oscar Wilde trial — and it’s not enough. Davies isn’t interested in skewering the rich and powerful: he lets them behave. Blessed with Oscar nominations and decent international box office, Triangle of Sadness is the peak and the limit of Östlund’s obsessions. Take a cruise, man, and find new ideas.


2 thoughts on “Ship of fools: ‘Triangle of Sadness’

  1. The execrecence of Ostlund is that he shots vulgarity by being vulgar himself, which is kind of what ci-ne-mah is all about today, no? His bluntness is a weapon not even bad Borat could match. Confuses rudness with trangression and the system with its characters; he has no mercy at all, the incurable misanthrope: everyone here is petty and miserable. He’s just a megaphone for the Twitter hatred culture, with likewise aesthetics.
    His sucesses at Cannes an now the Oscars are just symptoms of the putrefaction of what is suddenly considered “high art”. Give me “likes”, he seems to scream. I had to cleanse my palette by inmediatly seeing my copy of “Gosford Park” and wheep Altman is gone. Also, Buñuel could never!

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