As part of our coverage of the 47th annual Toronto International Film Festival, Meg Shields reviews Ruben Öslund’s Palme D’Or-winning social satire, ‘Triangle of Sadness’, starring Charlbi Dean, Harris Dickinson, and Woody Harrelson. Follow along with more coverage in our Toronto International Film Festival archives.
As we’re informed during the film’s opening scene during a runway model casting call, a “triangle of sadness” refers to the worry lines that form between the eyebrows: a dead giveaway of prolonged periods of frowning and displeasure. As it turns out, this was a warning. Ruben Östlund, if you’re reading this, I’m going to invoice you for my Botox treatment.
Although they can barely split a dinner bill without calling their whole relationship into question, celebrity model couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) accept a presumably #sponcon offer to travel on a luxury cruise liner. Elsewhere on deck, the other guests embody that specific out-of-touch wealth that thinks a banana costs ten dollars. And while the champagne flows freely and the pained smiles of the crew wane as they bend backward to appease every mindless whim and inane query lobbed their way, catastrophe strikes. It’s a perfect storm of… well, just that: a perfect storm. A chance encounter with some extremely opportunistic pirates later, and the survivors find themselves stranded on a deserted island, forced to put their extremely lacking survival skills to the test.
Triangle of Sadness makes writer-director Östlund’s previous film, The Square, look subtle. And if you’re familiar with the heavy-handed anti-upper middle-class screed, that’s saying something. But there’s no way about it: Triangle of Sadness is like being bonked over the head with a battering ram for two and a half hours. The film’s satire is about as sophisticated as, well, a bunch of overindulgent socialites spewing glittering vomit all over a luxury yacht.
And hey, for what it’s worth, I think it’s high time that someone gave us an honest representation of the realities of true, honest-to-god, full-body sea sickness on-screen. There’s nothing wrong with satire being vulgar and juvenile. I am a woman who loves Pier Paolo Pasolini. Who am I to throw stones? And really, focusing on the Triangle of Sadness’ crassness is a gratuitously gold-flaked red herring.
The most profound thing Triangle of Sadness has to say amounts to a “boy howdy, conspicuous consumption is pretty gross, huh?” And it’s like, yeah, Ruben. Sure. Also, water is wet. And look, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being blunt and obvious. But being blunt and obvious for 149 minutes is either a war crime or a mighty big ask of your audience.
It doesn’t help that Triangle of Sadness isn’t really all that interested in using its corpulent runtime to offer us anything in the way of a counterpoint as to how, exactly, we’re supposed to eat the rich. I don’t think all satires necessarily need to include a call to action. You can absolutely justify ending on a bummer note if what you’re gesturing towards is complicated enough (The Death of Stalin is a great example of this). But Triangle of Sadness’ bloated length and its reticence to get any skin in the game make it come across as sloppy, if not outright complicit. Östlund has demonstrated that he’s more than capable of applying a delicate touch to the more nuanced subject matter. But this, as the kids say, ain’t it.
I’m pretty sure that Triangle of Sadness’ broader strokes (and lack of subtitles) will mean that more folks will watch it than, say, The Square. A lot of folks like feeling validated and unchallenged in their socio-political beliefs, however basic. If there is a silver lining, it might be that the brilliant Force Majeure will get a bump from all of Triangle of Sadness‘ inevitable post-Palme D’Or win award buzz.
In the end, it’s frustrating that Triangle fails to manifest as more than the sum of its parts… because the vast majority of said parts are genuinely delightful. Frequent Östlund collaborator Fredrik Wenzel shoots the hell out of this movie, highlighting the ugliness of upper crust aesthetics and zooming around the yacht with the exhilarating ease of a fly circling shit. As Carl, Harris Dickinson easily gives the best performance in the film, endowing the simultaneously dumb but over-thinking male model with vapidity and pretty boy entitlement without making him feel entirely loathsome. There is also an incredibly fun and acrid third-act performance by Verdict’s Dolly De Leon that I won’t spoil the specifics of here, but hot damn. You’d think that a film this long wouldn’t leave you wanting more of a character, and yet here we are.
For all its boons, Triangle of Sadness fails to justify either its cynicism or its length. The film is as bloated and excessive as the ultra-rich it’s ostensibly ribbing. And if this irony was a deliberate choice, then Östlund has way more contempt for his audience than I gave him credit for.
Triangle of Sadness will be in theaters in the United States on October 7th. You can check out the trailer here.