For eons, storytellers have found humor in poking fun at the most privileged in our society. While there has always been entertainment for the rich, satire and comedy found themselves more relatable to mass audiences when they mocked high society. At a certain point, the clothes and beauty become too extravagant. Directed Ruben Östlund turns his gaze on influencer culture and social norms in Triangle of Sadness, his latest black comedy. Even as Östlund embraces many of the low-brow flourishes of comedy, his film makes striking points about how we create, perpetuate, and create culture.
Young couple Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek) and Carl (Harris Dickinson) find themselves on an all-expenses cruise. Their trip has been comped, in part because of their job as influencers. What began as a dating relationship has become stale, despite the benefit they each get from their arrangement. When things go sideways on the cruise, they find themselves relying on Abigail (Dolly De Leon) and others for any hope of returning to society in one piece.
Östlund takes aim at those who find privilege and refuse to acknowledge its existence in their lives. Visually, he showcases this aspect over and over throughout the film. When Carl finds himself uncomfortable with the appearance of other men, he finds ways to banish them, even if it is not what he intends. For Yaya, she looks down on those around her, even as she struggles to connect with Carl beyond the physical. She supposes that the world revolves around her, in part because she takes care of everyone. Yet when she loses that control, she finds herself struggling to understand herself.
To help Östlund takes a scalpel to societal norms, his characters actively violate them. Many older and richer characters in the film realize what they are doing is wrong but proceed with their actions regardless. To them, there is no point in living for more than the moment. Their wealth has afforded them safety in ways they’ve never understood. The further Östlund dives into his character’s minds, the more unprepared and absurd they become.
The commentary that Östlund procures also takes aim at capitalism. He acknowledges that some work hard for their money, but many others luck into wealth. Genetics and circumstance are pure luck rather than the stories we tell about pulling ourselves up. Finally, it explores the corrupting power of resources. The way in which money and resources change power dynamics within a situation and relationship echoes throughout the film. We change who we are and what we care about based on our proximity to perceived power. This social dance provides plenty of material.
While these ideas are big, they are not always executed to their highest potential. While having our best filmmakers critique the lifestyles of the rich, Östlund never delivers keen insights as poignant as the ones present in Force Majeure. Rather than finding slyly comic moments to craft these insights, Triangle of Sadness utilizes broad and bawdy comedy. The humor also leans into its morbidity. Two surprisingly upsetting comical sequences focus on a man removing valuables from a corpse, while another involves a rock and an animal. This approach to the comedy never quite borders on slapstick, but there’s no mistaking its presence. Whether you get on board with it will ultimately determine your enjoyment of Östlund’s vision.
Perhaps more indicating, none of the commentaries bring new ideas to the table. Novels like The Great Gatsby have long poked fun at the shallow nature of capitalism and wealth. While Östlund puts social media influencers and oligarchs in his crosshairs, the fundamentals remain the same. Simply splashing a fresh coat of paint on well-established thoughts does not make them new. Without new critiques to bear, Triangle loses its edginess.
Finally, the performances of Triangle of Sadness breathe life into the script. Dickinson, in particular, gets to play an oddball twitchy character looking out for number one. His puppy-dog, people-pleasing energy becomes infectious. Kriek also showed great promise in this film. Sadly, the actress passed away in August of 2022, tinging Triangle of Sadness with the air of unfulfilled potential.
The last performance of note comes from Dolly De Leon, who simply blows away the cast in the second half of the film. Her timid nature helps her fade into the background, but once she shifts her disposition, it’s an unbelievable performance. De Leon does not simply change her mindset, but her entire physicality as Triangle of Sadness unfolds. She truly draws you into the second half of the film, unlocking many of its more complicated ideas.
A film like Triangle of Sadness allows Östlund to thoroughly showcase its actors and his screenwriting. However, at the same time, Östlund does not deliver enough new ideas to sell its critiques. The story feels timeless, in large part due to the great performances littered throughout. What feels like a slight step down for Östlund would be many filmmakers’ best film. Depending on how the humor hits your funny bone, Triangle of Sadness will either be one of the year’s best or an insufferable slog. For this critic, it just misses the mark for true greatness.