2022 | rated R | starring Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Woody Harrelson | written & directed by Ruben Ostlund | 2h 27m |
In just a few pictures Sweedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund has stepped into a movie space wide-open and left for the taking to be the moment’s most biting satirist. First examining masculine expectations in Force Majeure and then satirizing the modern art scene in The Square, both 4.5/5 star movies, both in my Top 10 for their year. With Triangle of Sadness Ostlund attempts to grab that big brass Luis Brunell ring, satirizing rich social aristocrats of our time. It’s a big broad movie that spirals out into all sorts of tones and tenors from sharp incisive relationship conflict to Marxist debates to South Park level scatological humor.
Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) are two models, he fashion, she Instagram, who take their rocky relationship onto a lavish yacht vacation with all sorts of wealthy aristocrats; however a thunder storm, sea sickness and pirates threaten to turn the crew’s comfort into a fight for survival that none of them are even remotely prepared for.
I know I’m supposed to marvel at what a sharp, cutting satire of the wealthy and their vapid social media obsession – but, I’m sorry, yawn. We’ve seen this before and much better whether it’s classics like Rene Claire’s The Rules of the Game or Brunell’s The Exterminating Angel or Ostlund’s own The Square or just about anything. This is Ostlund shooting very safe fish in a very large barrel. He’s not going out on a limb here or providing any new angle on the broad class warfare satire where the wealthy seemingly have no idea how they got their wealth and need the servant class to help them. In this case, it’s all made very literal with above and below deck ship metaphors and Carl getting upset that Yaya smiled at one of the crew. The fish aren’t even in the barrel now, someone else pulled them out and held them up against the Ostlund’s gun.
Triangle of Sadness (not to be confused with Christopher Smith’s boat set time-loop movie Triangle) divides out over 3 distinct parts with three distinct levels of effort and invention put in them. Act one is actually pretty great. A 25 minute vignette in it’s own right, this is the portion that focuses entirely on Carl and Yaya. First, Ostlund introduces us to the fashion world, his own satirical version of it where the funhouse mirror is turned just slightly crooked. It’s pointed and specific in it’s jokes and it was here where it lapped Sacha Baron Cohen’s Bruno which started out as a fashion satire and flew all over the road before it was over. Ostlund creates a world here akin to the art world from The Square and the act wraps up with a wonderfully awkward and protracted argument between the couple that starts over the payment of the bill and escalates.
It’s the introduction of the yacht in part 2 and the rest of the cast where Ostlund starts going for the obvious. The rest of the cast are generic rich people. While one couple is shown to have made their money on weapons manufacturing it’s unclear what the rest of them have done or what type of people they even are to warrant Ostlund’s razor. A bout of sea sickness grips the middle section of the film, turning it into a literal vomitorium, with it’s characters projectile vomiting, stumbling over themselves and sliding across the floor in the wildly tilting ship. Because we don’t know any of them particularly well, it all rings like hollow caricatures. Their rich and that’s enough for Ostlund to take a bat to them and get cheered on by the film festival class.
Part 3 takes a radical turn I won’t divulge here, but suffice to say that it takes all the mysticism and satire from Exterminating Angel and plays it out straight, again perpetuating this idea that the wealthy don’t build businesses and work, but have spent a lifetime in luxury propped up by the lower class, who actually keep society running. I’m all for a good satire of the aloof and aristocratic, but Ostlund is trampling over well worn ground here and taking forever to do it. The film’s through-line, Carl and Yara, remains the best part of the third act, but gets fuzzier the broader the film gets. There is a bit of jabbing-all-sides here with Ostlund’s group of supposedly peaceful socialists rapidly becoming a dictatorship. There’s a blatant conflict of ideologies where a Russian capitalist and a Marxist American captain (Woody Harrilson) start by trading quotes and descend into drunken rants.
None of this is particularly funny or biting or insightful. Frankly, it just made me yearn to go back and watch The Exterminating Angel and Rules of the Game again. In The Rules of the Game high society demands a sacrifice. Here Ostlund can’t go that far, resulting in the most unsatisfying and pretentious ending of the year.