When it’s at its best, satire derives humor from skewering the powerful and playing into the inherent absurdity of those with nothing better to do in their lives than maintain a status quo that continually privileges them. It’s an artistic form that has been mastered many times over the years, from Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal” to great recent films like Thank You for Smoking among others. But what really makes it work is the sense of relatability. Yes, the comedy comes from lampooning the idiocy of the upper echelons of society, but it lands when it can be drawn back to the lived experience of the audience. Just as importantly, it has to be delivered in a way that doesn’t patronize or condescend to the very people it’s trying to entertain. You have to punch up without talking down to the viewer. This is largely where Don’t Look Up failed last year, as Adam McKay decided that basically everyone was a worthy, corruptible target, and the commentary was so heavy-handed that it felt like a lecture with jokes.
Sadly, Ruben Östlund’s latest effort, Triangle of Sadness, comes up short in much the same way. Don’t get me wrong, the film is wickedly funny and deliciously dark in places, but it falters because of those two main points. On the first, there are several times as he’s lambasting the idle rich that Östlund redirects his target to the poor and middle class, which comes off as tone deaf. Two, he fails to give any real connectivity to the audience because our respective ciphers are either just as shitty of people, or worse, are boring and shallow individuals not worth devoting any real attention to. It’s a good movie, but like Titane last year, it could have been so much better if it were more focused, and as such becomes the second consecutive Palme d’Or winner that ends up being oddly disappointing.
The film is divided into three distinct chapters, and one of the major setbacks you’ll notice is that the first and third acts could be almost entirely cut and no one would care. The first establishes our protagonists for want of a better term, in the forms of Carl (Harris Dickinson, aka Prince Phillip from Maleficent 2, so great pedigree there) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean, who sadly died quite suddenly two months ago), a pair of young, dating models. Both get regular work, but Yaya is more successful. At a fancy restaurant where Yaya seems far more concerned with whatever’s on her phone, Carl hesitantly picks up the tab, leading to an ill-advised and ill-informed discussion on dating, money, and gender roles from both sides. At this point, I’m already checked out, as these two play into the worst stereotypes of the modeling and fashion industry. Yaya is oblivious and borderline cruel as she barely forms an emotion, while Carl is a sniveling prat who can barely form a thought. Even when they apologize and make up, their relationship is essentially an agreed-upon scam for social media attention, with Carl being converted into an “Instagram Boyfriend.”
These are our ostensible leads, and yet they leave basically no impression other than shallowness and apathy. Are we really supposed to care about them? Are we really going to spend two and a half hours pretending they matter? If this is the grand, overarching commentary, that models have little to no substance, then why are we even bothering? Things certainly don’t improve in the final act, where a bit of role reversal really only serves to create a new villain out of a poor person (Dolly de Leon as Abigail, a cleaning lady) and introduce false jealousy into Carl and Yaya’s fake relationship that never gets resolved.
The real meat of the film, and really the only story that matters, hardly even involves our two main characters. The second chapter takes place on a luxury yacht, where Carl and Yaya are but two faces in a figurative and literal sea of oligarchs. If this section was the entire movie, I’d highly recommend it, because this is where we get the best humor, the best dialogue, the best character work, and the best scene (not just for this movie, but among the best of the year).
On this posh ship, Carl and Yaya are essentially interlopers, observers who are literally trying to “fake it ’til they make it.” Having gotten their tickets for free from a sponsor of Yaya’s “influencing,” they get a taste of the so-called sweet life without truly being a part of it, all while seeing just how absurd, empty, and tragic it all is.
Vicky Berlin leads the service crew as Paula, who demands nothing but perfection from her staff, with every request from a passenger requiring obedience, even when it makes no sense to do so. This leads to a delightfully awkward sequence where the wife of a Russian billionaire (Sunnyi Melles) commands the staff to enjoy themselves as she is and take a swim, necessitating a complete halt to all ship operations so that every member of the crew can take a waterslide into the ocean. At another point, an elderly guest complains about the sails not being clean, unaware of the fact that as a motorized vessel, there are no sails at all.
We get introduced to a much more interesting cross-section of characters on this platform as well. There’s the aforementioned Russian billionaire, Dmitry (Zlatko Burić), an old British couple (played by Amanda Walker and Oliver Ford Davies) who got rich as arms dealers but present themselves as the most sugary sweet grandparents you could meet, and a woman who, after suffering a stroke, can only communicate by saying “Yes,” “No,” and “In the clouds” in German (Iris Berben). Her speech is even subtitled in German, which is an oddly funny choice, as every time she screams, “In den Wolken!” you can’t help but giggle.
All of these people indirectly show Carl and Yaya what a life without responsibility and consequences is like, and we in the audience get to bask in that deranged nonsense. Even in more serious moments, like when Carl sheepishly complains about a guy he finds sexually threatening and ends up unintentionally getting him sacked, showing just how disposable the common man is to these people, the satire shines.
This all comes to a head in one of the most memorable, funny, and utterly gross scenes of the year. If you’re a fan of Östlund’s work, then you’ll probably recall his last film, The Square, which also won the Palme d’Or and was nominated for International Feature. That movie’s great moment was a fundraising dinner where, in a show of dangerous live art, Terry Notary, who does a lot of motion capture work, including in the Apes reboot trilogy and Kong: Skull Island, enters the dining hall pretending to be a gorilla, and attacks the stuffed shirts and their upscale event. It was a masterful display of camera work, improvisation, and the ability to get a point across through sheer discomfort.
Östlund ups his own ante here with the Captain’s Dinner. The ship’s captain, played by Woody Harrelson, is what modern parlance would call a “quiet quitter,” in that he shows up to his job but basically doesn’t give enough of a crap to try. Rich assholes pay him to run the ship, but he mostly stays in his cabin, drunk. After mishearing Paula, he picks the one night where the Captain’s Dinner should absolutely not take place, during a stormy evening with very choppy seas. The visceral hilarity that ensues from a bunch of woozy passengers chowing down on octopus tentacles, all while Harrelson casually eats a cheeseburger and drinks champagne like nothing’s wrong, is an experience I don’t want to spoil, so as not to deprive you of the extreme pleasures of the moment. What I will say is that, in addition to the uproarious laughter I and the rest of the audience experienced, I was genuinely impressed with the filmmaking techniques on display here, as Östlund keeps either the camera or the set itself tilting back and forth while the cast reacts to it according to the needs of the scene. It’s really well done.
Is the yacht sequence perfect? No. There are bits that don’t really go anywhere, particularly a drunken debate between Harrelson and Burić on the respective merits of communism and capitalism. But it’s sharp, biting satire performed at the highest level through about 90% of the action in this particular section. Had this been the entire movie, or had the rest of it maintained this laser focus on the folly of plutocrats, I’d be looking at the A-levels for the final grade. It’s that good.
Unfortunately, what comes before and after it falls almost completely flat, and pads a runtime that very much didn’t need it. And in doing so, it comes dangerously close to defeating the very purpose of satire itself. Instead of indicting the elite through sly humor, the rest of the film ends up painting with very broad strokes that turn downtrodden working class people into even bigger monsters than those who casually and cavalierly control their lives, all while giving way too much screen time to an unlikable couple with absolutely no dimension. An early scene reveals that the titular “triangle of sadness” is just the space between your eyebrows that can become a unibrow if not properly groomed. This becomes something of a metaphor for the entire production, as the core problem with Triangle of Sadness as a film is everything on either side of that meticulously maintained middle section.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? When is satire at its best for you? Have you ever tried to have a meal on a rocking boat? Let me know!