“From each according to their ability, to each according to their need” exclaims the filthy rich Russian cruise patron Dimitry (Zlatko Buric) suddenly finding himself in a situation where his money is worthless. The shit-peddling — he sells manure, you see — oligarch quoting Marx conjures quite the shocking mental image, but his about face was anything but surprising. Only a few minutes prior the gregarious gazillionaire had been summoning the words of Reagan and Thatcher to defend his enormous wealth as a ship full of bourgeois relentlessly puked up thier overpriced dinners. Opulence and absurdity abound, but subtlety is of short supply in Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or winning Triangle of Sadness.
When we first meet Carl (Harris Dickinson), he is auditioning to model for some ad campaign, awash in a sea of shirtless men. A documentary crew with a hype-man host has the boys alternate between smiley poses, a staple of inexpensive brands, and dour ones meant to look down on the customers of expensive clothing lines. Poor, happy. Rich, sad. From the very beginning things are pretty straightforward.
Carl proceeds to fight with his girlfriend and fellow model Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean) over who should pay a dinner bill before coming to realize their whole relationship is essentially a business opportunity. On comped tickets, the power couple bask in monied glow of a super yacht, its risible band of billionaires and its almost caste delineated crew. In case it were not made clear by simply watching the crew of the ship break out into a guttural chant of “money! money! money!” Östlund makes sure to have his characters outright debate the merit of capitalism on screen.
None of the objectives Östlund pursues in Triangle of Sadness are without merit, “That’s Capitalism Baby™” is a fundamental message of this very blog and accompanying podcast. The problem is that the Swedish director doesn’t seem to trust his audience to understand the problems with wealth he so deliberately spells out. It’s bizarre too, given that this is the same man who so powerfully ripped apart gender dynamics in Force Majeure with a brilliant subtlety. Watch those films back to back and you might be hard pressed to tell they came from the same director.
While it is understandable that artists would want to really press an issue as destructive as wealth inequality, satire connects when it lets absurdity speak for itself. Absurdity gets its fair share here — there is an extended sequence in which overstuffed capitalists expel from both ends — but Triangle of Sadness ultimately veers closer to a Don’t Look Up style preach than a Wolf of Wall Street level evisceration.
It’s not all bad of course. Scenic ocean views provide a beautiful backdrop for much of the film and many of the characters are initially well conceived. Woody Harrelson’s drunkard socialist Captain is especially compelling in his limited screen time. Many of the jokes littered throughout do land quite well. Without so much stating the thesis out loud this could have been truly special.
Ultimately Triangle of Sadness is more concerned with making sure audiences are left with no doubt about what it’s message is. Maybe that’s a good thing as there are folks who might refuse to here an anti-capital message without it being explicitly read out too them by an actor off a script. As a piece of art though, this is a film that gave away some amount of resonance to get that message across. 6/10