Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness is an entertaining social satire.
It is a standout among the recent wave of films and TV shows with “eat the rich” storylines that include Succession, The White Lotus, The Menu, and to lesser degrees, Wendell and Wild and Nocebo among others. It is a standout not only because of its inspired choice to cast Filipino actor Dolly De Leon as a luxury cruise ship worker (there are over 400,000 Filipino seafarers, making them the largest nationality group in the international maritime workforce, so why not write a role for/cast a Filipino) but also in how its takedown of the elite is so direct (eg killing them with the very product that made them rich).
Featured in the movie are the obscenely affluent—oblivious to their privilege, given to frivolity, absurdity and questionable morals. There is an elderly couple who made their wealth from arms dealing, toasting to war and bemoaning international conventions on war protecting the innocent because that shaved their profits. Their products became their own undoing. Another wealthy guest forced all the crew to go swimming and sliding from the deck to the ocean, leaving the food being prepared for the captain’s dinner to go bad. Another elderly guest insisted the sails be cleaned, despite the yacht having no sails, with the captain acquiescing even only in word.
The triangle of sadness is the space between the eyes where frown lines form. The title was thrown away at the beginning of the movie, as it showed what models had to do for publicists and casting directors to get booked. Not entirely dehumanizing but not exactly the glamorous part seen on magazine covers or the runway, they line up like livestock, they have to do as they’re told and they have to sell themselves. They also have their fair share of embarrassments such as losing a front-row seat to more prominent guests in a runway show. Everyone experiences getting booted out of their seat, right? But maybe in more commonplace situations. This is because the first act of the story features a couple who are still climbing their way up the social ladder.
The first of three acts of the movie is about two dating models, Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean). They argue after Carl picks up the bill even when Yaya promised to do so, while Yaya called out Carl for freeloading off her hotel room. Yaya explained that she acts expecting to be taken care of for she expects she would end up as a trophy wife when her modeling career is over. They ultimately kiss and make up and agree that their relationship works for their careers and marketability, not yet admitting to love. While seemingly vapid, both are pragmatic and both understand their standing in life–this would play a part in the decisions they make later in the story. They will be seen in the next act aboard a luxury cruise they got for free, thanks to their popularity on social media. Yaya poses for photos, such as a pasta dish she does not want and intend to eat—it’s all for the online reach. For the money.
The $250 million luxury cruise yacht in the second act of the story is the setting showcasing the stratification of society. On the upper deck, the rich bask in the sun. The white staff of the ship in the middle deck celebrate their potential big tips. In the lower decks, the non-white workers rest when they can.
The captain’s dinner devolves into chaos with the storm getting stronger, as one gourmet dish after another is served. The guests get seasick or food poisoning, due to their own fault. The yacht’s drainage/waste system gets clogged, sending back up its contents, deluging the guests with their own vomit and excretions as the captain (Woody Harrelson) and the Russian oligarch banter about capitalism and Marxism over the yacht’s PA system. The pirate attack sinks the yacht and leads to the next act.
The seemingly deserted island where shipwreck survivors ended up in the third act is the setting of the survivors’ little dystopian society where Dolly De Leon’s Abigail became the captain. Abigail upends the accepted social order in the desperate situation they’re in by being the smartest, strongest, the most productive, the fittest to survive–much like in primitive times. Unfortunately for Abigail (and all that do not belong to the ruling class), this situation does not last forever.
And even while marooned on an island, the rich have more to eke out to be more comfortable or secure. The Russian oligarch who made his fortune out of shit (a fertilizer magnate) mourned the loss of his girlfriend while salvaging and claiming the pieces of jewelry on her body. He also has a Rolex and the tech tycoon has a Patek Philippe to trade with Abigail so they can sleep in her boat and need not sleep out in the open. Meanwhile, Carl, having good looks, starts a transactional relationship with Abigail to sleep comfortably and eat well.
While some panned how the movie only targeted the “low hanging fruit”, the popularity of these kinds of stories these days underpins favor for finding pleasure or relief in watching the wealthy suffer. And this might be due to the economic hardships around the world since the pandemic, then the rising inflation and cost of living as lockdowns eased, while the most wealthy only got wealthier. While the rich (and how they became filthy rich) can’t truly be taken to task with these stories, that they are exposed as ridiculous means we know the economic gap on its own is wrong–and this is what the movie offers.
The next act should be what the people do to change this in real life.