This review originally ran May 21, 2022, in conjunction with the film’s Cannes Film Festival premiere.
After his 2017 art-world satire “The Square” scored the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Swedish provocateur Ruben Östlund swaggers back to competition with “Triangle of Sadness,” a mixed-bag of social commentary and gross-out comedy that could only come from a filmmaker with a secured reputation and zero f—s to give. Taking aim at the 1% and shouting “Eat the rich!” with the anger of a sea storm and the subtlety of an exploding toilet, the film is both over-long and under-stuffed, but it nevertheless left Cannes’ notoriously tough crowd doubled over in laughter.
Running just under two-and-a-half hours and split up into three chapters, the film lifts as much from Noam Chomsky as from John Waters as it hoses down beauty standards and luxury culture with gallons of projectile vomit. A repeat Palme d’Or performance is probably not in the cards, and that’s just as well for the social satirist, who seems emboldened by his previous honor to bite the hand that fêtes him. [Editor’s note: “Triangle of Sadness” did indeed go on to win the 2022 Palme d’Or.]
Models and influencers Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean) are the throughline uniting the three chapters, which respectively find them on a date, on a cruise and stranded on an island. Nearing their mid-twenties and recognizing their sell-by-date nearing ever so close, the pair makes for a convincing couple on Instagram and have much less to say to one another when their phones go dark.
In chapter one we find them at a chic restaurant and embedded in a register that most closely resembles Östlund’s previous work. Like an art-house Frankenstein, Östlund’s style fuses Larry David’s brain with Michael Haneke’s eyes, narrowing in on minute social hypocrisies, blowing them up when characters act against convention, and filming it all with a chilly remove. And so as Carl calls out his more high-earning girlfriend’s inability to ever pick up a check, a series of escalating responses sends their relationship into a tailspin.
They rally in time for a luxury cruise in chapter two. By far the youngest passengers on board, Carl and Yaya spend their days idling with genteel arms dealers and aging trophy wives, striking up a particular bond with a Russian fertilizer magnate who calls himself the King of Shit. As the film’s longest chapter builds towards its scatological centerpiece, it scores a number of easy points playing an imperious class of wealthy grotesques against the ship’s obsequious staff. Think “The White Lotus At Sea” and you wouldn’t be far off.
When the ship’s booze-swilling, Marx-reading captain (Woody Harrelson, having a ball) finally emerges from his suite, the film finds its surest footing as everyone else loses theirs. Hosting the Captain’s Dinner just as a wicked storm causes the yacht to rock and roll, the loutish captain steadies himself by drinking his way through. The passengers, however, begin to lose their dinners in what becomes an extended sequence of scatological comeuppance that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hieronymus Bosch painting. The Cannes audience was fully on board, whooping and cheering as the situation worsened and every kind of icky substance painted the screen.
Without getting into too many specifics, by the time we reach chapter three, which plays as kind of Marxist “Gilligan’s Island,” we see set roles and social hierarchies reverse as the ship’s meek cleaning lady Abigail (Dolly De Leon) emerges as the new top dog; she soon wedges herself between Yaya and Carl, turning the film’s central relationship into a different kind of triangle of sadness.
That Marx becomes such a touchstone doesn’t quite flatter the film in the way it intends; while Östlund’s social observations are no doubt astute, they’re also more than 150 years old.
And running at 150 minutes in length, “Triangle of Sadness” feels both bloated and slight, stretching out a shrewd but limited thesis that all the world’s a market about as far it will go, and then running back the tape and doing it again. Putting forward the same class read that has become a kind fixture of modern prestige entertainment, “Triangle of Sadness” invites comparison to other (and more incisive) work and loses in that exchange. Östlund’s project just doesn’t have the same ingenuity as “Parasite” or the linguistic dexterity of “Succession;” instead the film feels the most itself embracing its own shamelessness.
Just ask the audiences howling at Cannes as soon as they catch their breaths.
“Triangle of Sadness” opens in US theaters October 7 via Neon.