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‘Triangle of Sadness’: Vomit and Shit and Class Warfare, Oh My

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The saying goes that we should “eat the rich,” but after watching the long, central set piece of Ruben Östlund’s Triangle of Sadness, in which a crowd of financially overstuffed yachters slip-n’-slides through volcanic sprays of liquid shit and pools of their own vomit, who has the appetite, really? One moment, this bevy of well-off guests — a barely-minted influencer and her model boyfriend (who got a trip on this yacht for free), an assertively polite older British couple (who happen to be arms manufacturers), a Russian hypercapitalist (who’s gotten rich off of selling fertilizer — shit — for a living), and so on — are trying to quell rising seasickness as their luxury vacation gets overtaken by a violent storm. The next moment: projectile vomit. Diarrheic overflow rendering every errant step into an accidental mud bath. One woman tries to keep it all down with gulps of champagne, a strategy that, outrageously, does not work. Another guest appears to be having a heart attack. All of this, and the band of pirates destined to make this trip even worse has not arrived yet.

It’s a classic example of an Östlund set piece, a bulbous, comical display of the kind that made the better stretches of his well-regarded Force Majeure (2014) and The Square (2017) worth watching. Plot becomes subservient to chaos. A barrage of grimly ironic jokes repeat themselves ad nauseum, turning characters’ suppositions about themselves on their heads, like a broken record of an otherwise enjoyable song. Back and back we go to the toilets, the vomit, the horror. The only person seeming to have any genuine fun is the self-loathing, intellectually messy captain of the ship, Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), who may in fact be to blame for the maelstrom to begin with, because it’s all happening on the night of his Captain’s Dinner, which he’d been asked to hold on a different night because an oncoming storm all but guaranteed this disaster would happen. When we later find out that Smith fashions himself something of a Marxist, it seems fair to wonder if he did all of this on purpose — created the perfect conditions for a group of loathsome rich people to humiliate themselves in the most grotesque way, expelling their frou-frou multicourse gourmet with the utmost shame as he kicks back with his hamburger and cuts it up with the jovial Russian. And with that Russian shit-slinger Dmitri (Zlatko Burić) in the mix, things only become funnier. They make for a decidedly, if calculatingly, ironic pair: the American Marxist captain and the Russian capitalist (get it?) passive-aggressively palling it out like one of those viral videos of unlikely animal friends in the wild, a duck smooching an alligator or something equally ridiculous.

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Östlund’s movies are not designed for you to miss the point. It matters, of course, that Captain Smith isn’t a Marxist so much as he’s an idealist who’s as self-serving as anyone else, a bitter adult for whom capitalism hasn’t quite worked out (because if it had, he wouldn’t be making his living fielding speak-to-the-manager complaints about the sails of his yacht, which has no sails, being dirty). It matters that he’s a hypocrite — that his choices are out of sync with his ideals. Östlund’s comedies, which are attempting to be satires, are powered by hypocrisies such as these. You may fashion yourself modern, espousing your belief in an egalitarian household in which man and woman are equals who turn their noses up at traditional gender roles, but you’re only setting yourself up to be exposed — Scooby-Doo villain-style — when an unexpected crisis ostensibly requires a back-to-basics pivot to He-Man and She-Woman stability and you fail to live up to either (Force Majeure). You may promote yourself as an open-minded, humanitarian artistic institution, but when it comes down to it, you’re still an operation underwritten by the pearled and Rolexed luxury class, just as committed to class hierarchies as the institutions you claim to decry, just as unwilling to be made uncomfortable or to have the feathers of your decorum ruffled (The Square — and, perhaps, Östlund’s career).

Triangle of Sadness would seem like a slight shift from those works into more gangbusters, no-holds-barred territory, a movie that, if its scatological detour is any indication, is far more vested in really going there. Really, its most effective ideas and most pointed bits of situational humor are rehashes of jabs Östlund has thrown before — which isn’t a crime. It gets quite a bit of mileage out of the problem of beauty as its own form of transactional currency, a device that can be switched on or off whenever social advantage calls for it, laden with meanings that can reflect society’s values back at itself, much like the forms of art and performance that Östlund analytically side-eyed in The Square. The movie opens in the world of fashion, with a good joke about smiley brands (read: cheaper, more commercial) versus scowly brands, the latter being those high-end lines in which the models seem to be turning their noses up at you, trafficking in that alienating stylishness wherein the price point hinges on making consumers feel like they aren’t good enough for the product. We watch as a row of shirtless male models flip between their H&M smiles and D&G scowls on a dime, Östlund’s camera standing back to capture it all with its per-usual exactingly composed, skeptically angular flair. It’s all so much performance, so beholden to snobbery and capital — while, on the other hand, serving an industry that’s willing to make an opportunistic show of caring about the world (as we see at a fashion show in the next scene, with its corny climate-activist sloganism: “There is a new climate entering the world of fashion.”)

At the center of that row of bro-models is Carl (Harris Dickinson), who, with his girlfriend Yaya (the late Charlbi Dean), form the aforementioned model-influencer couple anchoring the movie. Their first scene together is a de rigueur Östlund couple debate, hinging on their ironic hypocrisies. He’s the modern guy who wants to upend what’s expected of them as a man and a woman by splitting the tab at dinner, but regressive enough to insist that his penchant for passive-aggressive bickering is something more principled than it probably is. She’s the modern woman whose phone is always out — is Carl her boyfriend, or her resident photographer? — and who’s forward-looking enough to be self-made on Instagram (rather than industry-made, like Carl). Yet she, too, is regressive in her own way. She makes more money than Carl but still craves the certainty that a relationship with a man traditionally affords — for example, financial support. Hence acknowledging the dinner bill with a “Thanks” to Carl, assured that he’ll take care of it. A recipe for bickering with a so-called male feminist, in other words.

These are beautiful people, and that’s meaningful, even if we’d prefer for it not to be. The sight of Carl — again shirtless — reading Ulysses on a yacht shouldn’t make for a chuckle-worthy visual gag. But, well, it does. That doesn’t amount to a full-out satirical critique in itself, nor does it need to. The trouble with Östlund is that it’s these little slivers of humorous insight, rather than the grander intellectual ambitions toward which his movies too often strain, that are actually effective. Triangle of Sadness, which clocks in at almost two and a half hours, grows into a busy ensemble affair that’s split into three sections, the first focusing on Carl and Yaya alone before following them onto their pleasure trip on the yacht and, when that trip goes south, caps things off with a third section titled “The Island.” All along it makes a grand show of its insight into the layers of this social world: the friendly but self-interested rich and the multiple levels of workers on the yacht, from the high-ranked captain’s crew (led by a humorously tyrannical Vicki Berlin) to the ominous and unnamed security detail, whose presence seems out of place until their necessity becomes clear, to, glancingly, the people below deck, the hospitality and engine room workers. Östlund takes care to attend to this broad spectrum — to a worker class that’s just as much of a hierarchy as the world from which their guests are taking respite — in order to set up and sustain a drawn-out, satirical comedy of manners. Nowhere is this thrown into higher relief than in the last stretch of the movie, when the tables turn and a worker from below deck, played by the wonderful Dolly de Leon, moves to the forefront.

Östlund’s penchant for setting this world up as a confluence of social oppositions — Marxist versus capitalist, rich versus poor, powerful and opportunistic versus under-resourced and genuinely skilled — risks feeling oversimple, even for a satire, because it’s so ceaselessly dyadic; his twisting shifts of fate and fortune play on fairly simple, easily digested contrasts. The spark of his work, which is on full display here, is that he sets up so many of these contrasts at once, encourages them to interplay and echo throughout the movie. The benefit is a movie that is pleasingly symmetrical in its ideas; even a silly scene of a rich guest on the yacht wanting to trade places with the workers, serving up the champagne while the workers are coerced into going for a swim, has its necessary callback later on, when roles are genuinely reversed. Like many of the fun ideas in Triangle of Sadness, the underpinning of the scene is castrated by Östlund’s direction, which has less verve than at first appears, overdetermined by a dull sense of comic timing that gets by on the basic funniness of its situations. His style seems distinctive on the surface — he has a good eye — but it’s all surface. His direction here and elsewhere feels more excessive than it is, mistaking the spaciousness of its scenes and its commitment to the bit for the true, anarchic, even mean delights of the satire it appears to have in mind. The best thing this movie could do is risk genuine exuberance, a sincerely depraved sense of decadence that would make the social crimes of the rich he depicts come off as that much more corrosive, that much worthier of skewering. 
Instead, Triangle of Sadness seems hemmed in by its tastefulness — which feels strange to say about a movie whose central scene is a literal shitstorm, but this is precisely what merits the red flag. If not for that scene, how far would the movie appear to go? It’d rest on a few great elbows to the ribs, a few great punchlines (the best involving a grenade; the second-best involving the divvying out of some octopus) and a lot of filler. The actors try their best, but Östlund’s insistent conceptual droning overtakes them.

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