The targets in Triangle of Sadness — models, influencers, the ultra-rich, oligarchs and weapons dealers — are thunderingly obvious. The setting — a luxury yacht bobbing around the seas of luxury — is easy. The content — a send-up of the rich and an investigation of class dynamics when the status of luxury has been stripped away — is oftentimes banal. Yet the Palme D’or winning film is an undeniable masterpiece. How is this possible?
For me, it’s because Triangle of Sadness is a complete triumph of style over content. In the hands of another director, for example, a journeyman American comic director, this would be an insanely painful, stupid, and grotesque film — something as inane as the Farrelly Brothers’ version of The Heartbreak Kid (2007). With Ruben Östlund behind the camera however, the aesthetics are so perfectly realised their force overpowers the message, creating a riot of fantastic compositions that can arguably enjoyed entirely for their own sake.
Our heroes are an Instagram couple; together not so much out of love, but due to the synergy of their good looks in drawing in followers. They are sketched in wonderfully in the first part of the movie, a long drawn-out debate about gender roles and who should get the bill in a restaurant. It’s a reality TV premise, playing with stereotypes of sex-based expectations. It’s the kind of argument any normal couple can easily avoid. But brilliance in this arguments come through the subtleties of the dialogue, the drawn-out performances by both Charlbi Dean and Harris Dickinson — the latter playing a rarely-seen-on-screen-but-highly-specific-kind-of-British-guy with exceeding accuracy — and the way the wide angle lens and cutting builds tension.
Was it even necessary? Especially considering the repetitive arguments the same couple have when they are finally on the yacht? I don’t know. Are these scenes highly enjoyable in themselves? Absolutely. Considering how his parts are always better than their sum, Östlund should join his contemporary Roy Andersson — a man even more stringent in his aesthetic — and just make an anthology film.
The 2.35:1 aspect ratio, shot with an ARRI Alexa Mini using Zeiss Supreme lenses, allows DOP Fredrik Wenzel to create these lovely, wide compositions, fashioning tableaus that allow for an uneasy, almost deadpan feeling. This all builds up the centrepiece of the movie: the dinner scene that turns into a vomit party. It’s Monty Python meets Family Guy meets a Scandi aesthetic, and the results are truly wonderful. Imagine all these people throwing up in a broad American comedy. It would be insufferable. But the composition here, aided by the set design, allowing the literal set itself to move and become this shape-shifting space, creates something truly sublime.
These are audience comedies, begging a large group of people watching at all the same time. But I don’t think my fellow audience members in hysterics are reacting to what’s happening as much as to the strange way it’s happening. It all boils down to aesthetics, and the aesthetics are simply on-point throughout.
And the intense production shows in every frame. The film took nearly eighty-five days to shoot. I read in The Guardian that some shots required over 20 takes. This precision in performance is evident in every scene of the movie, especially once the brilliant Filipino actress Dolly de Leon takes centre stage in the last act. The overall theme — the rich are stupid when it comes to actual survival — is about as smart as the Boon and Shannon or the Nikki and Paulo parts of Lost, but the final execution makes it more than worth it.
So Östlund has proven himself to be a master satirist and a master stylist; a force to be reckoned with in world cinema. But I hope that next time, he gives himself a more nuanced target.
It sounds unlikely with his next work. His follow-up film, The Entertainment System Is Down, presumably already written, sounds even more blindingly simple. As he tells Filmmaker Magazine: “It takes place on a long-haul flight. Quite soon after takeoff, the passengers get the announcement, “Unfortunately the entertainment system is down,” so they are doomed to hours and hours of non-digital entertainment and distraction. So they are back in this analog world where they have to deal with their own thoughts and analog socialising.” Its premise was routinely trashed on Twitter. And with anyone else behind the camera I might even agree. Yet, it’s easy to see Östlund tease out the nuances of frustration and entitlement here, the limited setting allowing for an endlessly escalating chamber piece. I would never personally write him off. Not with this much style behind the camera.