Scatological arthouse satire skippable

Another way the film seems to exist only for its yacht leg is every scene in the marketing was set on the yacht, at least in America, so you’re not aware there’s any other setting going in. Images courtesy Neon.

6/10 After his electric black satire The Square took the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017, lord of shapes Ruben Östlund has won the Palm d’Orr again with Triangle of Sadness, only the third director in history to win the award twice. His new effort doesn’t make nearly as solid a connection.  

Triangle of Sadness is a tedious and obvious satire about apathy toward the impending ecological collapse. It is, appropriately, divided into three parts. In the first, model and influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean), who makes significantly more than her peer and boyfriend Carl (Harris Dickinson), psychologically abuses him with gender and power dynamics. In the second, they go on an exclusive luxury cruise, free to them in exchange for social media promotion, but populated mostly by old money arms dealers. In the third, they are among a group of survivors on a deserted island. Abigail (Dolly de Leon), the only crew member with necessary survival skills, takes command and begins sexually abusing Carl.

Triangle of Sadness explores power structures in various settings, from the modeling and dating world to a deserted island, but doesn’t have much to say about them other than they exist, they’re a problem and sometimes shoes end up on different feet. The abuse of power by a dictator who controls everyone’s access to food is the same as the abuse of power created by wealth inequality which is the same as the abuse of power differentials created by gender norms, cool, whatever. Obviously, I didn’t get a whole lot out of it.

Like The Square, Triangle of Sadness is a passive-protagonist film in which the lead character makes no decisions to drive the plot forward and learns nothing, and most of the appeal is in cringing at uncomfortable scenarios created by oblivious people with power. They’re extremely deadpan, laugh-at-the-little-people, above-it-all movies, and you really need to turn your empathy off and have that attitude going in.

The big talking point for Triangle of Sadness is the poisoned dinner scene, which has no fewer than eight explosive bursts of vomiting among the guests, and, I don’t know, man. I just don’t find vomiting a particularly impressive metaphor or technical effect.

This makes them difficult films to latch onto, but where The Square mocks the insular upper echelon of the European art scene, Triangle of Sadness, mocks unavoidable, everyday issues, specifically the disconnect between rich and poor, social media posturing and the climate crisis. My instinct to put myself into this film is much stronger, and it isn’t designed for that.

Östlund has said that the intent behind Triangle of Sadness was to satirize capitalism with the lead couple’s physical beauty standing in for currency. Unfortunately, the global warming stuff is much closer to the surface and is constrained within the middle leg of the film, leaving two thirds of it feeling vestigial, but also apparently containing what’s most important to the director. It feels undisciplined as it goes about its business.

It’s an evocative satire and one that can’t help but be powerful. The scene of the captain (Woody Harrelson) blathering about the distinction between Marxism and communism as the ship he’s supposed to be steering goes down is, I mean, yeah. The mass of vomiting among the people who symbolize the greed that’s killing the planet is, I don’t even want to call it “heavy-handed,” it should be the most common metaphor for what’s going on right now. The whole thing kind of speaks for itself. It feels perfunctory, almost like a movie that should exist without really needing anyone to watch it – which I guess is a compliment. Capturing the moment like this is an accomplishment, even in a way that feels expected.

The central metaphor of beauty as currency stalls when the lead couple, whose currency is beauty, get to the ship and start bumping shoulders with people who have a lot of actual currency. Everyone’s job is just as symbolic as theirs, with an English arms dealer, Russian royalty and a lonely tech billionaire among the customers – the whole cruise seems like a scam, it looks like only a handful of people are onboard.

Triangle of Sadness can satirize the system of commoditizing beauty all it wants, the alienating power of making everyday life photo-ready, of “Instagram eats first,” but when it starts satirizing the people who use their beauty as currency, it quickly devolves into being mean to hot people, like it’s playing out the grudge of an ugly middle-schooler who got by telling themselves the pretty kids must necessarily be dumber. I don’t understand the anger here.

The French title translates to “Without Filter,” which draws more direct attention to its social media subject matter, where the English title, and the movie was shot in English, calls back to a specific line about Carl’s frustration drawing lines on his brow. The different titles prime your attention to very different aspects of the film, and I’m not sure of the reason for the difference.

At the individual level, it’s a film about Carl’s lack of self-respect as he descends from a modeling industry that doesn’t value him to more abusive relationships. This also feels more mean-spirited than insightful, since we spend more time watching Carl squirm or laughing at how weakly he stands up for himself than sympathizing with his problems. It feels like there’s some degree of missed opportunity here. If we were following a more assertive lead character, it’d be easier to get invested in the film, and he doesn’t have to win, but putting more pressure on the power structures he’s up against would define them better.

The real problem with this movie is, like several other 2022 entries, most noticeably All Quiet on the Western Front, Triangle of Sadness is directly enabled by 2019 Best Picture winner Parasite, and Triangle of Sadness isn’t fit to shine Parasite’s scholar’s stone. I just can’t think of a situation where I’d ever recommend this film over the one that shook the film world just before the pandemic, and if you’re looking specifically for that Östlund vibe, The Square is a much stronger example of his work.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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