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‘Triangle of Sadness’ asks whether turnabout is fair play

“Triangle of Sadness” (2022). Cast: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Woody Harrelson, Zlatko Burić, Carolina Gynning, Sunnyi Melles, Dolly De Leon, Vicki Berlin, Arvan Kananian, Alicia Eriksson, Oliver Fred Davies, Amanda Walker, Iris Berben, Ralph Schicha, Henrik Dorsin, Mia Benson, Jean-Christophe Folly. Director: Ruben Östlund. Screenplay: Ruben Östlund. Web site. Trailer.

We like to think that we’re fundamentally all equal, and, in idealistic terms, it’s hard to take issue with that notion. However, from a practical, realistic standpoint, inequality is unfortunately alive and well in so many contexts. It’s undoubtedly unfair that such differences have been allowed to continue to hold sway and that there are those who must endure such inequities. But can the situation be rectified? And, if so, how? Those are among the questions raised in the new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness.”

Pity the poor 1%. They have it so rough. One indeed wonders how they get by. Consider the plight of male model Carl (Harris Dickinson) and his significant other, model and social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean). They have such difficult dilemmas to resolve, like who pays for dinner at an upscale restaurant. It might seem like a minor point to most of us (save for the total of the bill), but the couple turns the subject into a protracted and increasingly shrill discussion, first in the bistro then in the chauffeured ride home then in the hotel elevator and finally in their hotel room. Even though they may not possess the resources of the super rich, they’re nevertheless rather well off. So, of all the people for whom one would think such a discussion shouldn’t matter, it would be them. Yet there they are, squabbling over something that brings out the pettiness that characterizes those of their ilk, first in terms of finances and then in terms of gender roles.

Their behavior and attitude set a prime example of what’s to come. This episode thus serves as a sort of prologue, perfectly capturing the nature of the class of people who will be depicted in the remainder of the film. Carl and Yaya will be part of this coterie of characters, of course, but they’re only one aspect of the upcoming show, one that sees them and their peers put through their paces.

After this opening segment, the film picks up with Carl and Yaya, among others, on a cruise aboard a luxury yacht, where the staff is commanded to bend to every whim of the passengers, no matter how frivolous, demanding or capricious their requests might be. The ship’s chief steward, Paula (Vicki Berlin), has the crew whipped into shape through a combination of polite intimidation and hilariously over-the-top motivational speaking exercises. And, almost without question, the staff obediently complies, which isn’t always easy given the many outrageous demands made by the wealthy, eccentric passengers, some of whom include:

  • For starters, there’s Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), a successful fertilizer magnate (who doesn’t always describe himself quite so diplomatically) who exemplifies the unabashedly capitalist Russian nouveau-riche. Though jovial and pleasantly generous, the unrepentant oligarch nevertheless has a crass, somewhat unsophisticated streak that makes him come across like a cast member of “The Moscovite Hillbillies.” He travels with his spouse, Vera (Sunnyi Melles), who has all the class of a mafia wife (and the tacky outsized jewelry to prove it), and Ludmilla (Carolina Gynning), his trophy mistress. Together, this trio unabashedly flaunts their affluence, yet they also do their level best to put a positive face on their wealth and even encourage the “less fortunate” among them to join in their fun (such as Vera’s insistence that the entire crew participate in a group swim, a request that’s reluctantly fulfilled despite cruise line restrictions against such forms of interactive fraternization). And who says the Russians don’t know how to enjoy themselves?
  • Winston (Oliver Fred Davies) and Clementine (Amanda Walker) are a charming, elderly, exceedingly rich British couple who have been together for years and are still very much in love. They freely share these sentiments with the other passengers, exuding a warmth that’s undeniably infectious. They seem like loving grandparents whom anyone couldn’t help but adore – that is, until one finds out how they made their fortune: as munitions manufacturers specializing in the marketing and distribution of grenades and land mines, primarily to third world nations caught up in nasty and ongoing internal struggles. Charming couple indeed.
  • Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin) has more money than he knows what to do with, having made a bundle as a coder for various IT applications. But, considering his milquetoast personality, he’s lonely, unable to attract the attention and affection of others (most notably women). The sheepish Swedish programmer quietly yet desperately seeks company, but he’s often his own worst enemy, sitting silently by himself , hoping that someone will take notice of him. It seems that money truly can’t buy happiness.
  • Therese (Iris Berben), sadly, suffered a debilitating stroke that has left her severely incapacitated. She’s confined to a wheelchair, wholly dependent on her husband, Uli (Ralph Schicha), to care for her. To make matters worse, she’s barely able to communicate, capable only of calling for her spouse and uttering a few phrases in German, most notably “In den Wolken,” which translates as “in the clouds,” the realm where most of her clueless peers appear to reside. It seems that money can’t buy health and well-being, either.
  • And, then, of course, there are the many dimwitted eccentrics who are aboard, too, such as a woman (Mia Benson) who constantly complains that the ship’s sails are dirty and in need of cleaning – never mind the fact that this is a motorized vessel with no such riggings. Of course, given that the passengers are always right, the crew continually and politely indulges her request, promising that they’ll attend to it at their soonest convenience. I guess with that kind of money one can afford to live in one’s own little world, no matter how much it may be detached from the rest of us.

Tending to the needs of this motley crew is the eminently patient staff, all under Paula’s micromanaged direction. For instance, there’s Alicia (Alicia Eriksson), a steward who struggles to correctly reconcile her responsibilities, such as complying with Vera’s group swim request, knowing that she’s supposed to be accommodating but without violating ship’s regulations. Then there’s Abigail (Dolly De Leon), a dutiful maid who tolerantly abides by all of Paula’s and the passengers’ requests, no matter how thoughtlessly made. And then there are the engine room crew members, such as Nelson (Jean-Christophe Folly), who, like most of his peers, is African – and, sadly but unsurprisingly, confined to their place below deck.

Model and social media influencer Yaya (Charlbi Dean, left) and her significant other, Carl (Harris Dickinson, right), relish the pampering that comes with sailing on a luxury yacht, at least for as long as it lasts, in director Ruben Östlund’s new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Film i Väst.

Overseeing this operation – allegedly, that is – is the ship’s captain, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson). That qualification is noted because the skipper spends most of his time locked in his cabin, drunk off his behind. The ship’s first mate, Darius (Arvan Kananian), and Paula try to keep Smith in line, shouting announcements and reminders to him through his cabin door and trotting him out when needed, such as ensuring that he shows up for his required appearance at the Captain’s Dinner. That’s all easier said than done, however, given that the avowed Marxist has quiet contempt for his well-heeled passengers, quite the irony considering the position he holds. Maybe that’s why he’s three sails to the wind most of the time.

So what are Carl and Yaya doing aboard this ship of fools? Considering their significant social media influence (particularly Yaya), they’ve been asked to partake in the voyage to help promote it, a freebie offered them by the cruise line. But, more than that, their presence is symbolic of their desire for upward mobility. They aspire to turn their modest wealth into the mega wealth enjoyed by their fellow passengers, believing that this kind of social climbing is something worth pursuing. But is it? As events play out on the cruise, they may find that such an aspiration is not all it’s cracked up to be.

While the cruise starts out living up to expectations, matters slowly deteriorate, first with minor inconveniences and gradually escalating to far more problematic issues. This becomes apparent during the ill-fated Captain’s Dinner, whose timing couldn’t be worse – during a violent storm at sea. As the ship rocks back and forth and the various courses are served, the passengers grow increasingly unwell as seasickness overtakes virtually everyone and leaves the vessel a progressively disgusting mess. (Where’s that Dramamine when you need it?)

But that’s just the beginning. To say more at this point could potentially be considered a spoiler, so, if you don’t want to know what happens, stop reading here. But, to fully understand what this film is all about, keep going if you want to know more.

As the catastrophe that is the Captain’s Dinner continues, the ship’s power goes out, leaving the vessel dead in the water (crashing waves notwithstanding). But conditions finally settle down by morning, leaving one to believe that the worst has subsided – that is, until a pirate ship appears on the horizon, a development followed, ironically and fittingly enough, by a grenade explosion on deck, sinking the ship and most of the passengers with it.

In the aftermath of the disaster, only a handful of passengers survive – Carl, Yaya, Dimitry, Jarmo, Therese, Paula, Abigail and Nelson. They make their way to what appears to be a remote deserted island. They have few supplies and no realistic hopes of being rescued, at least any time soon. So what’s next?

Under these conditions, a new social order emerges. Those possessing the strongest survival skills (principally Abigail) take over as the tables are now decidedly turned. So how will this modern-day version of Gilligan’s Island (with a few passing nods to Lord of the Flies) shake out? Can “the Howells” of this primitive new society maintain their status, or will they be forced to capitulate to a new group of masters? That’s what remains to be seen as this sociopolitical odyssey unfolds.

One might easily come away from this story asking, “How could things possibly get so out of hand?” Well, just take a look at what’s going on in the world around us these days, and you’ll see that such an outcome is not so far-fetched. If we’re such a supposedly intelligent species, how have we ended up with so many widespread social, political, economic and environmental problems to solve, nearly all of which are readily attributable to our own making? Time Out magazine has fittingly hailed this film as “the perfect comedy for our times” – and how astute that observation is.

As a vehicle designed to get us to sit up and take notice, “Triangle of Sadness” has indeed struck a nerve, shining a bright light on the pervasive inequalities in today’s world. In doing so, it has also put us and our beliefs under the microscope for what amounts to some very uncomfortable scrutiny. And examining those beliefs is crucial, for they shape the world around us thanks to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon the power of these intangible resources in manifesting the existence we experience, for better or worse. In this case, it’s not hard to imagine which of those applies.

This is not to suggest that our beliefs are always put to nefarious uses; they’ve also created much good in the world, as they can essentially be employed in the materialization of virtually anything. But, as this film illustrates, they can wreak all kinds of havoc when implemented for wholly self-indulgent purposes, all the while making it look as though such dubious choices are something to be looked up to.

In bringing all this to light, this offering symbolically depicts the results with spot-on incisive wit. For instance, the yacht’s problematic voyage is a perfect metaphor for a ship of state sailing in troubled waters. And, to compound that problem, it’s being captained by a drunken, irresponsible skipper at the helm who doesn’t know what he’s doing (remind you of anybody?). Captain Thomas Smith could be a symbol of virtually anyone in a position of power, struggling to keep their respective political, social or business institutions afloat. One need only look at the fiasco that is the Captain’s Dinner to see how these notions can manifest metaphorically, symbolically indicative of bigger and more troubling issues.

Perpetually inebriated cruise ship skipper Captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson, right) is propped up through the support of his dutiful first mate, Darius (Arvan Kananian, left), in director Ruben Östlund’s new satirical dark comedy, “Triangle of Sadness,” now playing theatrically. Photo courtesy of Film i Väst.

The relations between the passengers and crew also reflect the class distinctions so prevalent in today’s world. While that relationship is comically portrayed here as a present-day version of the 1970s British TV series Upstairs, Downstairs, it actually depicts a more serious issue that spans the differences between the world’s haves and have-nots. It also addresses what can happen when circumstances prompt a switching of roles and what can occur as a result. For the 1%ers, life suddenly isn’t what it once was – and may never be again.

The inequalities extend beyond economics, too. The question of gender equality comes up frequently, even amongst the privileged themselves. One need only look to the relationship between Carl and Yaya, for example, to see how this plays out. But it doesn’t end there. When the castaway survivors end up stranded in the wilderness, Abigail assumes a leadership role that puts the supposedly strapping alpha males in their place, a position to which they’re sorely unaccustomed.

What’s most important to bear in mind here is that all of these developments – unsatisfactory though they might be – nevertheless stem from the beliefs of their creators. In this case, we’re talking about co-creations in particular, collaborative results that arise from the jointly held beliefs of everyone involved. Some might argue that it’s patently advantageous for the haves to manifest what they have created for themselves, but what do the have-nots get out of it? That’s difficult to say, given that we can’t get inside their consciousness to discover the exact reasons behind what they’re doing. However, it could be that they are part of a collaboration whose underlying intent is to materialize a scenario in which all parties involved have an opportunity to experience and learn a valuable life lesson that they may not be able to get any other way. Should that be the case, they’re obviously in store for a potent, possibly transformative experience – and, again, for better or worse for all involved.

Is turnabout fair play? That’s a good question, one that’s put to the test in this outrageously hilarious new sociopolitical satire from writer-director Ruben Östlund. Drawing upon themes explored in previous works like “Force Majeure” (2014) and “The Square” (2017), the filmmaker examines what happens when the uber-privileged find the tables turned on them, placing them in circumstances where those they once callously and willfully disrespected suddenly find themselves having an undeniable upper hand. But will those who were once oppressed draw from their unfortunate experiences and treat the newly downtrodden with dignity and compassion, or will they morph into newly emerging versions of those they previously spitefully detested?

In addition to matters of money and power, the characters in this sidesplitting farce also wrestle with issues related to gender, physical beauty and social influence and how they wield their clout in these areas in their relationships with others, including both peers and those of different class status. The symbolism employed to convey these notions can be a little obvious at times, but it’s always inventive and decidedly clever in its implementation, making the picture’s message readily known but without being too on the nose. Also, some of the bits – as funny as they are – occasionally go on a little too long, a quality easily apparent given the film’s unusually protracted runtime of 2:27:00, uncharacteristically long for a comedy. Nevertheless, so much of what takes place here works so well that it’s truly hard to find fault with the Palme d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the event’s highest honor. Its superb ensemble cast truly shines, and the locales are perfectly chosen, most notably the yacht, which was once owned by Aristotle Onassis.

This is the kind of picture that one might not suspect to be quite so uproarious upon entering the theater, but the film definitely delivers the goods, much in the same way that the Oscar-winning offering “Parasite” (2019) did. And, if you found that funny, you’re sure to find more of the same here. Catch it in theaters while you still have an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

To be fair, the differences that have divided us have been around for eons, and changing those entrenched patterns is not something that’s going to occur overnight. Indeed, we should be proud of what progress we have made. But there’s still much work to do, and change will only emerge when we decide to change our minds – and our beliefs – to set matters in new directions. We must come to understand that there’s no point in continuing to hold on to that which no longer serves us, but that’s something of which we must be convinced before proceeding. Let’s hope that movies like this help us to make those decisions – and sooner rather than later.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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