Triangle of Sadness (Sweden/France/UK, 2022)

October 19, 2022
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Triangle of Sadness Poster

Swedish director Ruben Ostlund is at it again, using the medium of film to satirize themes and ideas worthy of ridicule. In 2017’s The Square, he turned his attention to the art world. In Triangle of Sadness, the canvas is broader and includes the fashion industry, the superficiality and venality of the wealthy, and the shallowness of political dogma. As was the case with The Square, Triangle of Sadness takes some time to get going and occasionally slips into pretentiousness, but on this occasion Ostlund’s screenplay is better focused.

Triangle of Sadness is divided into three very different chapters. The first, “Carl and Yaya,” introduces the two main characters, model and Instagram influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean) and her less successful model boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson). We get to know these two by accompanying them on a date to a trendy, upscale restaurant where the question of who’s paying turns into a point of contention. Money is an issue for Carl (he doesn’t have much of it) and Yaya seems to enjoy using this as a means of manipulation.

Chapter 2 sees Carl and Yaya aboard a yacht for a cruise with the ultra-rich. Passengers include a Russian oligarch, Dmitry (Zlatko Buric), a couple of elderly arms dealers (Oliver Ford Davies and Amanda Walker), and an ultra-wealthy programmer (Henrik Dorsin) who dispenses Rolexes like candy. The staff, lorded over by the platinum-haired Paula (Vicki Berlin), bends over backwards catering to the whims of the guests while the captain, Thomas (Woody Harrelson), remains drunk in his cabin. Things progress fine, with the rich being pampered while a bemused Carl and Yaya look on, until the night of the seven-course Captain’s Dinner. That’s when the ship lists to and fro in the grip of a storm, causing many of the passengers to lose the expensive food they have been ingesting. And that’s only the beginning, eventually leading to…

…Chapter 3, “The Island.” A bizarre amalgamation of “Gilligan’s Island” and “Lost,” the concluding episode of Triangle of Sadness takes place after a disaster befalls the ship. The survivors find themselves stranded on a remote island with few supplies and fewer survival skills. Of them all, only the lowly below-decks worker Abigail (Dolly De Leon) has a clue how to fish and thus provide for the small group of uber-wealthy. And, in this new environment where food trumps money, the social order is reversed.

Although there’s probably never a minute that goes by without some kind of barb being tossed, Ostlund reserves his sharpest daggers for illustrating how utterly out-of-touch the ultra-rich are. One client rants about how the sails are dirty (when the ship doesn’t have sails). Another demands that all the workers use a slide to take a dip in the ocean. These people don’t take “no” for an answer. When the tables are turned and they find themselves helpless and effectively impoverished, their innate uselessness is italicized.

Although Woody Harrelson doesn’t have a lot of screen time, he makes the most of it, turning in the kind of offbeat performance the actor has perfected over the years. His duel of quotes with Zlatko Buric’s Dmitry is a highlight. For every Reganism or Thatcherism tossed out by Dmitry (the “Capitalist Russian”), Thomas (the “Marxist American”) is ready with something by Mark Twain or Vladimir Lenin.

The Captain’s Dinner reminded me of the Mr. Creosote sketch from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life as courses are vomited all over the desk and throughout the halls. To add to the mess, a toilet overflows, creating flows of sewage. Clearly, although Ostlund has some serious ideas to present, he’s not above using a gross-out, least-common-denominator means to an end. As was true of The Square (and to a lesser extent, Force Majeure), the longer, central act is stronger than the bookend chapters.

Over the course of the 2 ½-hour film, the characters of Carl and Yaya get lost. Oh, they’re still around but they are increasingly shunted into the background and little attention is paid to development once yacht gets underway. By that point, Triangle of Sadness has become almost entirely satirical, sloughing off any dramatic aspects. There’s a point beyond which it’s impossible to take any of this seriously (not that that’s such a bad thing…) and any connection we have with Carl and Yaya disappears. They become two more faces trapped in Ostlund’s weird, warped world.

Repetitiveness is a double-edged sword. Although it allows Ostlund to amplify his themes, it also results in a movie that seems about 20 minutes too long for the material. Editing is increasingly a lost art and there are times when Triangle of Sadness might have been more effective had it been presented with greater economy. Stylistically, however, that’s Ostlund. We’ve seen it before and doubtlessly we’ll see it again. There’s enough here to make it worth enduring the length.

Triangle of Sadness (Sweden/France/UK, 2022)

Director: Ruben Ostlund
Cast: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Vicki Berlin, Dolly De Leon, Woody Harrelson, Zlatko Buric, Sunnyi Melles, Henrik Dorsin
Home Release Date: 2023-04-25
Screenplay: Ruben Ostlund
Cinematography: Fredrik Wenzel
U.S. Distributor: NEON
Run Time: 2:29
U.S. Home Release Date: 2023-04-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: Comedy/Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1