Triangle of Sadness: A Satirical Masterpiece


Ben Jordan reviews the latest seafaring satire by Ruben Östlund

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By Ben Jordan

Ruben Östlund is a man who has a complicated relationship with satire. His latest, the Palme d’Or winning Triangle of Sadness, is characteristic of a director who has built his career picking apart social norms. Like Östlund’s other Palme d’Or winning satire The Square, it is also set apart by its scathing deconstruction of the norms that govern a particular social sphere. In The Square Östlund turned his lens to the art world, but in Triangle of Sadness his focus is much broader: the service economy, and the class contradictions that arise as an inevitable consequence of it.

As its title suggests, Östlund opts to split the narrative of Triangle of Sadness into three segments. In the first, the aptly titled “Carl and Yaya”, we are introduced to the two protagonists who give their names to the segment. Östlund sets up this segment in a manner evocative of his earlier work on The Square, and it is even complete with its own awkward dinner scene; a precursor to another scene in the following segment that is perhaps the most obscene in all of cinema. It is this earlier scene that gives us an insight into Carl and Yaya’s complicated relationship. Though Yaya both earns more than Carl and previously promised to pay, she is content to let him pay the bill at the end of an expensive dinner. An argument ensues, over the course of which Östlund encourages us to consider the gender norms that inform each of their perspectives. Carl challenges these norms, and states to Yaya that he wants them to be seen “as equals”; a hint of his patriarchal perspective is implicit in this assertion, and his insistence on compromising comes to be integral to the events of the narrative once it reaches its third and final segment. Östlund’s conclusion appears to be that society cannot see Carl and Yaya as equals whilst he is obligated to act out the role of a man, as it is so patriarchal that it cannot accept a compromise that degrades and diminishes the power assigned to men.

Nor does Carl truly want to give up his claim to power over Yaya. Intent on proving his love to her, Carl engineers a getaway on a luxury yacht populated by the ultra-rich. This is the setting for the second segment of the narrative. But there is soon trouble in paradise, and Yaya’s incessant texting becomes the least of Carl’s concerns. In the wake of an ill-fated dinner scene that is hilarious and ridiculous in equal measure, the ship sinks, and the survivors are left stranded on a desert island. It is here, in this third segment, that Östlund’s ingenious use of subversion is at its most apparent. Stranded on an island, the survivors discover to their dismay that the only one of them with even a basic level of survival skills is the cleaner, who proceeds to proclaim herself the “captain” of the group. Östlund spends the remainder of the film deconstructing the hierarchy that was established in the second segment on the microcosm of the ship by inverting it, and as each character is forced to reevaluate their relationship and social standing their conversations and the subtext behind them are used to paint a compelling picture of our current social and political climate.

This socialist slant does not come from nowhere. Earlier, in the second segment, we are treated to a side-splitting sequence in which the captain of the yacht (played by Woody Harrelson) gets drunk with a rich Russian industrialist. It turns out the captain is a Marxist, and an ideological war of words plays out between the two as they swap quotes and stories, eventually locking themselves in the captain’s cabin and subjecting the rest of the guests to their drunken stupor over the intercom. This sequence acts as the precursor to the sinking of the ship, and is about as chaotic as is conceivable, to the point where it even puts the iconic dinner scene in The Square to shame. I never thought I needed to see an old woman sliding along a bathroom floor covered in her own vomit until I saw it.

It’s certainly not for everyone, but in my opinion Triangle of Sadness is an uproarious masterpiece that both consolidates Östlund’s reputation as a master of satire and distinguishes itself in its own right as an integral piece of modern cinema. Its lead actress, Charlbi Dean, is a revelation throughout and her untimely death prior to the release of the film is truly tragic. It’s rare to see a star shine so bright, and in this respect Triangle of Sadness is her supernova.

Editor's Note: This was screened at Picturehouse York with a press ticket