“The more expensive the brand gets, the more you have to look down on your consumer,” instructs a fashion reporter in the opening of Ruben Östlund’s Palme D’or winner, Triangle of Sadness (2022). He’s talking about the difference between Balenciaga (a serious brand requiring models to embody a sour demeanor) and H&M (a cheap brand calling for smiles and laughter), but he might as well be summing up Östlund’s career trajectory, in which condescension toward his characters and audiences has grown in proportion to his budgets and accolades.
Far from the Haneke-esque Play (2011), which deployed a static, focused mise-en-scène in an attempt at an ambivalent, objective, and ethically-provocative viewpoint, Triangle of Sadness, in all its bombast and cartoonishness, doesn’t think enough of its viewers or subjects to aim for anything besides unambiguous and flatly conceived scorn. Like a well-framed art-house adaptation of an “eat the rich” meme, Triangle of Sadness is all resentment and levity without argument or criticality; it certainly looks down on the wealthy, but its lack of rhetorical depth and indulgence in cruelty toward its characters makes it hard not to feel that it looks down on its audience as well.
“It’s a hard thing to talk about money. It’s unsexy to talk about,” Carl (Harris Dickinson) tells his girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean) during an argument over whose turn it is to pay the check at a fancy restaurant. Full of slickly composed visuals, cameo appearances by cult-favorite actors (Woody Harrelson pops in for a spell as a Marxist yacht captain), and inoffensive, populist social messaging, Triangle of Sadness is very much a sexy film. Subsequently, and despite an advertising campaign that bills it as “a scathing takedown of the wealthy and beautiful,” the film also has a hard time saying anything specific about money or the rich and privileged without lapsing into generalities.
Told in three parts—the first, the aforementioned quarrel over the dinner bill; the second, a luxury yacht trip gone wrong; the third, and weakest, a survival story with the marooned yacht guests stuck on a deserted island—the sum total of the film’s chapters equals a general portrait of petty human cruelty more than any distinct class analysis.
In point of fact, the third section of the film does away with money and luxury entirely to focus on the power dynamics that form when the guests and servants are marooned. A Filipino cleaning woman, Abigail (Dolly DeLeon), who is the only one among them that knows how to fish and cook, becomes the de facto leader of the island’s social group, replicating the yacht’s ecosystem of privilege with the shoe now firmly on the other foot. Östlund has a field day with the irony of watching the rich grovel to their former inferiors, but while watching oligarchs being denied dinner is good for a laugh it also universalizes the class-based satire the film had so far been crafting, creating a sort of both-sides-ism that casts the indignities suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich as nothing more than inevitable, universal human behavior—quickly reciprocated if the shoe were to be on the other foot.
Money typically transforms a series of complex relationships into a simple medium for exchange, and in Triangle of Sadness it seems to have transformed the upper-class characters into simple mediums for easy social commentary. Largely defining the uber-rich guests of the luxury yacht by singular characteristics that double as quirky punchlines—a Ronald Reagan–loving ex-Soviet who proudly declares that he sells “shit” (i.e. manure), an elderly couple makes hand grenades—Östlund fails to give them any humanizing traits or even any distinct physiognomies or characteristics that would make them feel lived-in or memorable. Caricature is no stranger to satire, but when Östlund makes a point of mocking the superficial ways the wealthy view their servants—one running joke has a rich woman demanding all of the crew aboard the yacht jump into the sea to enjoy themselves, whether they want to or not—the film’s own superficiality toward its characters carries a not-inconspicuous amount of unintentional irony.
Like the survivors of the yacht’s shipwreck, who merely rebuild class society anew on a desert island, for Östlund it is a critical inability to think outside the contours of the culture he’s lambasting that is his film’s biggest failure. Despite the pleasures of the film’s expressed class-resentments, its schadenfreude reifies more than rebukes the casual cruelty of a world where little more than money matters.
Triangle of Sadness premiered in the US at the New York Film Festival. It is now in limited release.