This review contains some plot spoilers. If that bothers you, go see the film then come back and read it afterwards. Cheers!
‘Is this a grumpy brand, or a smiley brand?’ crows a reporter trouncing about the changerooms of a male model casting agency, surrounded by chiseled abs and toned pecs. Smiley brands, he explains, are the sort that are affordable to anyone, and thus have happy, smiling faces on their ads. But grumpy brands – the kind that are only afforddable to the wealthy – will only have non-smiling, judgmental models with razor-sharp cheekbones.
Enter our main character Carl (Harris Dickinson), the male model presently being interrogated by the chipper ‘journalist’. Today he is booking a ‘grumpy brand’: a job guaranteed to net him several thousand dollars. But that won’t happen if he doesn’t relax his ‘triangle of sadness’, i.e. the wrinkle that forms between the nose and the eyebrows after stress has occurred.
It’s a sort of throwaway line, but from here we are launched into the film’s central thesis: how far can beauty really take you?
Next up we meet Yaya (Charlbi Dean), Carl’s breadwinner girlfriend who makes her money as an influencer. She and Carl have an intense argument about who will foot the bill after an expensive restaurant dinner. She believes he should do it (because he’s the man!), but won’t communicate this to him – instead she pretends not to notice the bill, and slyly says ‘thank you’ when Carl eventually picks it up.
He gets so mad on their trip home that he stuffs a wad of cash into an elevator shaft – but that doesn’t matter when $100 is like $1 to them. This scene is so uncomfortable, with tension building every second as they passive-aggressively bicker, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.
Perhaps the funniest and most off-putting film of the year, Triangle of Sadness is a satire of the uber-wealthy, and director Ruben Östlund first English-language feature, that delights in letting its horrible characters really have it … and trust me when I say you’ll be laughing the whole way.
Trouble at sea
What better way to reset your relationship than a luxury cruise – especially one that’s being paid for by your girlfriend’s social media selfies? I can’t think of any way this could go horribly wrong.
The superyacht – which IRL is a ship that once belonged to Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy – is full of ‘notable elites’: a Russian oligarch who made his money in manure (‘I sell shit!’) and his snooty delusional wife, an elderly English couple who got their fortune manufacturing weapons, a tech bro named Jarmo, and many more of the usual suspects, all decked out in the finest ‘grumpy brand’ threads.
While the guests swan about and make ridiculous demands of the yacht’s staff, the ship’s captain (Woody Harrelson) is getting drunk and very purposefully ignoring his duties. Harrelson is in fine form here as Captain Thomas, flipping what could have been an absurd character into the only sensible one among a hundred absurd characters.
When the captain finally suits up for a promised ‘Captain’s Dinner’, the guests have no clue that they are about to experience Biblical levels of sickness-as-punishment.
Some critics have been disappointed at the film’s ‘easy targets’: saying that it’s picking ‘the low-hanging fruit’ of the uber wealthy, the arms dealers, the people who just don’t take no for an answer. It’s true that we expect these sort of people to be evil, and thus are not surprised when they’re depicted this way.
But let me tell you – when the famous ‘vomiting’ scene begins, I couldn’t stop laughing. I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my popcorn, and boy it felt good. So in response to those critics I say: who cares? This is all so cathartic, and so sorely needed after years of the ignorant bourgeoisie and their luxury cruises brought COVID to our shores time and time again.
It’s no coincidence Triangle of Sadness bears some obvious similarities to two other cultural landmarks of 2022: White Lotus and Glass Onion. In each we see people of enormous wealth and social status realising that may be the only thing they have going for them, and that when you take it away, they are nothing. Evidently this resonates with today’s audiences because we are so sick and tired of hearing about the elite in our own society breaking boundaries without consequence and making life hell for everyone else.
The vomiting scene turns to a diarrhoea scene, which turns to sewerage pipes exploding, and concludes with the superyacht sinking (though I won’t spoil exactly how; it’s not what you think). While this is happening, Captain Thomas and the ‘poo magnate’ Dimitry (the Russian oligarch) find themselves coming together as unlikely friends.
Though Dimitry is a traditional capitalist through and through, and Thomas a vehement Marxist, they banter away like old mates at the pub, even getting on the ship’s intercom to debate political theory while everyone else is losing their lunch at both ends. It’s like an impromptu podcast, and it’s the film’s most wonderful scene, leaning fully into gleeful absurdity as Thomas tosses communist books at Dimitry and slings back whiskey in his cabin.
All washed up
The film’s third act is where it starts to get a bit long in the tooth. After the yacht capsizes, a group of survivors including Dimitry, the tech bro, a mute woman, a ship mechanic, the head of staff, and Carl and Yaya (who we haven’t focused on for some time), take to setting up camp on a deserted island while they await rescue.
Suddenly, the arrival of Abigail (Dolly de Leon, who is fantastic), a Filipino woman who was the ship’s janitor, spurns an interesting power shift. But I believe too much time is spent analysing the group’s dynamic here when we are already so far into the film. We are more than three quarters of the way into a 2 hour and 29 minute film, and some of the shots here are so slow and unnecessary.
The conclusion is absolute dynamite, though. As the group’s mock island-society begins to mimic the pitfalls of the real world, despite their best efforts to keep things equal, we see that absolute power really does corrupt absolutely.
If all of this makes you stressed, don’t worry. There’s a treatment for that these days. Begin by relaxing your triangle of sadness …
Triangle of Sadness is in Australian cinemas 22 December 2022
Director/Writer: Ruben Östlund
Producers: Philippe Bober, Erik Hemmendorff
Stars: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Woody Harrelson, Dolly de Leon