‘Triangle of Sadness’ Review: Shallow Social Class Satire (New York Film Festival 2022)

Swedish director Ruben Östlund always has a keen sensibility when it comes to capturing absurdism in horrific or intense circumstances. Much like in Force Majeure and The Square, he understands and knows how to play up the comedic moments roped around the dire or ridiculous events our leads might be in. In the case of his newest Palme d’Or-winning feature film, Triangle of Sadness, this is no different and even pushes the boundary more in terms of how absurdist he can get away with. 

Triangle of Sadness is a dark comedy that depicts the lives of the super-rich on a very expensive cruise as we traverse their luxurious lifestyles and see what makes them tick through the perspective of two fashion models who get roped up in their world. The film is divided into three acts, follows Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean Kriek) as they deal with the stigmas of the fashion world in the first act. In the middle act they navigate the jarring viewpoints of the uber-rich. Finally in the third act they survive the dire circumstances of being stranded on an deserted island. 

Triangle of Sadness deals with a plethora of themes, ranging from social-economic power structures, gender dynamics, and capitalist/communist ideologies, all wrapped up under the guise of satire and self-criticism. Thankfully it works exceptionally well, albeit it all might feel a bit superficial and very blunt, especially if you were hoping for a profound exploration instead of what is being delivered. It relies on a lot of setups and payoffs that work magnificently well. An early example of this is when Carl and Yaya finish their dinner date, and the check comes in; Carl decidedly waits before picking it up since, it seems, Yaya had previously agreed to pay the bill. She ignores it, and he grabs it. Yaya replies with a swift (and slightly sardonic) thank you. What follows is the young couple arguing about who should pay for dinner – exploring the gender dynamics at play. Yaya expressed that wishes for Carl to pay since it’s the “manly” thing to do. He retorts that since it’s “the current year” she should be the one to pay. Adding to that she had promising to do so and adding to the fact that she gets paid way more than he does in their profession, which again plays with the power dynamics. Her credit card gets declined when she finally budges and reluctantly goes to pay the check. It’s a great exploration of how gender dynamics have shifted in the current era and how there’s still confusion, as well as a lack of communication, when discussing these ideas with your significant other. The setup and payoff are also very well executed, all this bickering regarding who should be the one to step up and pay, only for it to fall on the person who initiated the fight. It’s simple but effective. 

The movie depicts the super-rich as horrible, ego-driven, aloof caricatures, which might not seem that far off from the truth. Still, admittedly it also makes fun of the other side of the coin, the “communist” Captain Thomas Smith (played by Woody Harrelson). Captain Thomas is a great character, playing the drunken, lazy, and sarcastic superficial communist who hates every passenger on the cruise. There are a few great sequences with Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), the manure-selling capitalist who argues with Captain Thomas about how much they hate each other’s ideologies. It’s a great verbal spar, filled with contradictions, since they both don’t even commit heavily to their own ideologies. 

There’s also some clear satire of the feud and visible differences between the working class and the rich, as depicted by the cruise ship’s crew having to deal with the passenger’s increasingly ridiculous requests. All these moments are great, as the ludicrous chain of events gets progressively more insane as the film’s running time continues. Talking about the film’s running time, it does run a bit long by the third act. By this point, the film has made its thesis very clear and only serves as playing with the power dynamics that it established within the first two acts. It does continue to be consistently funny, but there’s not much in the way of actual satire, which was present in the first two chapters. It doesn’t fully take away from the film, but you will feel those last 30 minutes or so. 

Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean Kriek, Woddy Harrelson, Zlatko Buric and Dolly de Leon are clear standouts, all providing excellent comedic timing and line delivery. They have a great understanding of tone and what this film is attempting to do in terms of its satire, and they all fit their stereotypes very well. The banters between the characters and some of the deadpan approach to their performance are great, and add an extra layer to the overall execution of jokes in the movie. 

The film is pretty solid in terms of its visual presentation. It’s very grand in scale; it feels expensive as a movie. The technical elements are beautifully displayed, which makes sense, since it’s playing with these elements of extreme luxury. This also works in the now infamous vomit-filled sequence, which creates an interesting visual constant. However I can’t say I’m a fan of this sequence, which is being sold heavily in the marketing for this movie. It does run a bit too long, and while I understand and agree with the reasoning of why it’s there and what it contributes to the satire, it does overstay its welcome. I think the most egregious thing about it, it’s that it’s not as visually clever as I’d like it to be. This is your big set piece to visually parody the structures and the people in power. But it’s not as striking or impactful in a visual sense as it could potentially be. I dare say I find the Dumb & Dumber poop scene far more hilarious and memorable in its execution than most of these scenes in Triangle of Sadness. You can’t hold back if you are going to make bodily fluid gags. The director at the helm needs to play with several techniques (slow-mo, framing, and editing) so the viewer has a more vicious reaction, one that reflects the nastiness being portrayed in said scene. 

Triangle of Sadness satirizes the super-rich, gender dynamics in our current age, social hierarchies, the fashion industry, and so much more. While the satire is admittedly very skin-deep, it never stops being consistently funny and slightly introspective. 

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