As my first and only film at this year’s New York Film Festival, I could not have possibly selected a better title than auteur Ruben Östlund’s searing lampoon of Instagram culture and the social elite, Triangle of Sadness. From the very first frame, I was drawn in by the beauty of focusing on male models. Of course, this is simply Östlund toying with the audience by presenting something surface-level beautiful—in this case, that is chiseled pretty boy Carl (Harris Dickinson, Beach Rats, The King’s Man) and his vapid girlfriend, Yaya (Charlbi Dean)—before stripping away the ugly truth underneath. I honestly had no clue what to expect from Triangle of Sadness, and to me that is more exciting than sitting down for a feature senselessly inundated by advertising for months. Suffice to say, though I did anticipate exploring various twists and turns, I never expected gross-out humor or social commentary to shipwreck so diabolically across the screen.
During the introduction, Östlund dedicated the screening to recently-deceased Charlbi Dean, a beautiful gesture that did not go unnoticed by the uproarious sold-out crowd. Presented by NEON, Triangle of Sadness is divided into three distinct acts—“Carl and Yaya,” “The Yacht,” and “The Island.” Initially, our window into the world of male modeling comes by way of a biting critique on a runway casting call. An interviewer begs several male models, including Carl, to pose as H&M and Balenciaga spreads, and asks probing, borderline ridiculous questions of the clients. The satire continues when Carl later sits in on a fashion show touting that “everyone is equal now.” His relationship with Yaya is established through a hilarious series of mishaps that begin with a small disagreement over paying the bill at dinner, before ballooning into insanity.
Without our lead characters even boarding the yacht yet, Östlund firmly establishes what kind of people they are. Yaya admits to being a manipulative thrill-seeker, and Carl may be passionate and romantic but he is also overly obsessive. Yaya thinks it’s “unsexy” to talk about money. An elevator argument in which Carl stops the doors from closing no less than eight times is prickling and hilarious thanks to the power of performances from Dickinson and Dean. By the time we get to part two, Triangle of Sadness rolls full steam ahead. Unaddressed problems hidden just below the surface bubble and explode for Carl and Yaya, sparked from jealousy over a shirtless crew member simply saying “hi” to Yaya. We meet a colorful cast of spoiled rich folk and overly-enthusiastic crew, all of whom play major roles as the movie progresses in its heightened level of absurdity.
Carl snaps Yaya in varying states of undress for her Instagram profile, but is their vacation as picture-perfect as it first appears? Already, the influencers seem outsiders among the elite, considering they were gifted their trip aboard the luxury liner for free. On board, all manner of passengers commingle, including Therese (Iris Berben, Eddie the Eagle), a wheelchair-bound speaking-disabled woman who can say little more than “in den Wolken!”; two old folks from Britain, Clementine (Amanda Walker, Cloud Atlas, 28 Weeks Later) and Winston (Oliver Ford Davies, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Christopher Robin), who specialize in manufacturing hand grenades, their “best-selling product”; champagne fanatic Vera (Sunnyi Melles) would rather have the crew go swimming than wait on her hand and foot; Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), a fiercely opinionated fertilizer salesman; and many, many more.
This is the kind of yacht where the clientele is so filthy rich that they get air dropped Nutella. Paula (Vicki Berlin) acts as frantic leader of the behind-the-scenes machinations within the ship, in charge of the crew that must wait on the rich regardless of what they ask for—even if they request “illegal substances.” If there are any issues while aboard, be sure not to address them with the drunken, endlessly unavailable Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson, The Hunger Games, Zombieland). Harrelson doesn’t appear until well over an hour into the film, but is sure to make a mark, especially during an instantly-iconic “Captain’s Dinner.”
Without mentioning any spoilers, the extended sequence that erupts during the Captain’s Dinner will be one I go back to over and over again when Triangle of Sadness eventually releases on home video. I was gagging, laughing, and cringing along with everyone around me. These events completely alter the course of the film, and send us careening towards the finish line. Running nearly two-and-a-half hours in length, Triangle of Sadness thankfully never feels like it’s rushing, but merely perfectly paced to play up the satire for maximum impact. “The Island” segment ends up stolen almost entirely by the ship’s toilet manager, Abigail (Dolly de Leon). What de Leon accomplishes in a limited amount of screentime seems to scream “Best Supporting Actress” with every fiber of its being.
The film’s title, Triangle of Sadness, refers to the wrinkle one gets in between their eyebrows, and could doubly apply toward a love triangle that emerges late into the movie. During an early audition, someone remarks that Carl “needs botoxing” to address his very own triangle of sadness; the wider the net is cast for the people in their orbit, the more appalling the behavior becomes. The privileged often rely on others to pick up their slack, and do not take their own thoughts, feelings, or opinions into account. How can one be more excited to discover a bottle of cologne rather than a food source? It basically becomes the very meaning of wanting to have one’s cake, and eat it too. Ruben Östlund firmly establishes his own thoughts on social classes, leaving the viewer with numerous questions in the aftermath of a destructive, ironic ending. Thematically similar to last year’s dark comedy Don’t Look Up, Triangle of Sadness emerges as one of 2022’s finest dramedies.
Triangle of Sadness screened at 2022’s New York Film Festival, and will have one reaching for the barf bag when it comes to theaters on Friday, October 7th.