Triangle of Sadness is Ruben Östlund’s third dance with essentially the same ideas that powered Force Majeure, his force majeure of a drama from 2014, and The Square, his Palme d’Or winner from 2017. Triangle of Sadness also won the Palme d’Or, so Cannes obviously likes Östlund’s take on role-playing and status.
But first, Östlund has a little game to play. In a kind of prologue he restages the casting process for the film, with eventual-lead Harris Dickinson playing one of many male models being seen for a role in some never-specified campaign or show. To win the part ofTriangle of Sadness‘s Carl, Dickinson eventually beat out 230 contenders, so this fictional reworking isn’t far from the truth.
As well as establishing Dickinson’s bona fides as a handsome lad who can hold his own in a roomful of the sleek and the buff, this preamble also explains the film’s title. The “triangle of sadness”, as the fictional casting director tells Carl, is that area of worry lines above the nose and between the eyes, the one that botox is sent in to fix.
From here we meet an off-duty Carl and his pretty model and influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) at a fancy restaurant where they argue about who’s going to pick up the bill. Then follow them onto a luxury yacht for a millionaire-heavy cruise. And then, after a major disaster at sea, onto a desert island where Östlund works a variation of the plot to The Admirable Crichton as all certainties are upended.
Throughout, status is the prize won for playing the game of life. Some people have the deck stacked in their favour and are born beautiful, wealthy, sexy and so on. Others have played their hands well. Still others, mostly those below deck once the action shifts to the yacht (it’s the Aristotle Onassis yacht, so is genuinely swish), are still in the fight but have no chance of winning… unless something really disruptive happens. Of which more later, though why ruin a good plot with a spoiler?
So, Yaya and Carl, being broke by millionaire standards and having nothing to boast about apart from their hotness, lie about in various stages of Insta-undress on the deck of the yacht while others flaunt their status in other ways. Like the raddled, uncouth oligarch Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) who has had Nutella flown in by chopper and then sniffs when it is eventually presented at his table.
Yaya realises it’s all a game – she’s angling for a trophy wife gig once modelling gives out – but Carl is more your deadly earnest sort. He wants Yaya to love him for who he really is, the poor thing. Triangle of Sadness is the story of the lifting of that veil.
Quite what Woody Harrelson is doing in this is a mystery, though every second he’s on screen is golden, playing the fancy yacht’s ferociously drunken captain, a Marxist who holds his passengers in utter contempt. The scene where he is finally prevailed upon to attend his own Captain’s Dinner, a formal affair, and the weather, bad food choices and old plumbing conspire to deliver the film’s standout sequence – shit and spew delivered in bulk while the yacht lurches about – is really spectacular, funny and breathtaking, in much the same that the apeman-at-an-art-event scene was in The Square.
There are about three different films vying for space in this black-ish-ish comedy unafraid to make a point with a scalpel and then come back at it again with a bread knife, just in case we missed it.
It goes on way too long, in other words, though Dickinson and Dean (who died of a viral infection not long after the film opened) are lovely to look at, and Harrelson puts in another of his brilliantly over the top performances (his scenes with Burić are the best in the film). Dolly De Leon perhaps gets the best of it, in a late-to-the-party turn as the toilet attendant who suddenly finds the rules of the game have all changed. I’m saying too much.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022