Triangle of Sadness: An American Marxist and a Russian Capitalist on a $250 m yacht
As movies go, there are several advantages of being different. Genre films have been beaten to death and critics, not to mention discerning audiences, are dying to watch something different. There are those who are different by virtue of original ideas, while others are different for the sake of being different. Let’s begin with the title: in the first few minutes of the film, you are told that it is something that is formed with your two eyebrows as the base, going up to the top of your nose, and can be concealed within minutes with botox, so you don’t die wondering. Triangle of Sadness is not about the triangle of sadness, though it is about a lot of other things.
It is an art to have a large cast, get all of them due exposure, change tracks in the narrative ever so often, and yet manage to get a grip on the viewers. You would need to make a long film, and a long film it is: 147 minutes, no less. Since a large part of the film takes place on a luxury yacht, comparison’s will be drawn with Titanic. All the more because class conflict is at the core of almost all the conversations aboard the yacht, and even before we get on to the yacht. But the class divisions in Triangle of Sadness are more in-your-face, bringing in the American government as super-villain. It might also remind you about the Roman Emperor Nero. A queer kettle of fish (there is so much fish in the movie), it might need two viewings to fully decode. However, it was good enough to bag the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year.
The film begins with Carl auditioning for a model casting, with other male models. A TV anchor asks them whether they are auditioning for a grumpy brand or a smiley brand. He has not done much work. On the other hand, his girl-friend Yaya is much more established as a model, and she even opens the fashion show of a new brand, while her boyfriend Carl watches the show from a back-row seat. Afterwards, the couple goes out to dine at a fancy restaurant and has a rather ugly disagreement about who should pay the bill. To Carl, in a man-woman relationship, everything about gender roles should be equal, and he waits for Yaya to pick up the bill, especially since she had promised to do so the previous night. Yaya, however, seems to like the fact that her man would be ready to keep her needs covered, and she is more of a believer in the transactional nature of a relationship. Disgruntled by the dinner and the following taxi ride back to the hotel, the couple initially spends some time away from each other until Yaya finally returns to Carl’s room. The lovers seem to make up, and Carl makes a half-serious promise that he will make Yaya fall in real love with him some-day soon, beyond the transactional phase that they are in at present.
A few days later, Carl and Yaya take an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise trip on a $250 m yacht as part of her modelling/social media influencer job, and the couple makes acquaintances with the rest of the super-rich guests. They include Russians, British and Germans. The yacht’s captain is an eccentric man who refuses to come out of his cabin for days, insisting that he is not sick. But he has to come out to host the Captain’s dinner, which, he insists, must be held on Thursday, because a storm is predicted that day. As the glaring class divide and privileges that come along with it get more apparent, the luxury yacht sails through matters of social hierarchy and empty ideology. The Captain and a Russian guest indulge in a quote for quote game, on socialism, Marxism, capitalism, etc. To the guests’ misfortune, rough weather and a pirate attack follow in quick succession, leading to the yacht crashing in the middle of the sea. First, all of them throw-up by the gallon, and then the pirates target the yacht with a grenade made in the British billionaire guest’s factory. Carl and Yaya are among the lucky few to survive the blast as they wash up on a nearby island. Soon afterwards, the social class structure of the stranded group is toppled over completely. Abigail, a toilet cleaner, takes over as Captain, because she hunts the fish and cooks for every-body.
Written and directed by Ruben Östlund (English feature debut), Triangle of Sadness defies being classified into any genre. We can call it satire or black comedy, but these will be approximations. It also works in the multi-track genre, moving from one plot direction to another, within the same milieu. Savour this: A TV crew is interviewing male modelling hopefuls with the anchor passing judgements on aspects of modelling and male modelling every minute. Move on to the dinner at the restaurant and the follow-up at the hotel. Shift focus on to the yacht. Then introduce the staff and the guests, with each having a story to tell. Bring in a woman who, after an accident, can only speak three words. All this requires some writing. The only part I found really overdone was the community vomitting and overflowing toilets.
Östlund has done a very good piece of casting, so that when his actors are discussing issues or arguing or even making love, they look natural. Just when you start wondering whether Woody Harrelson was worth casting in this role, he comes into his own. It is a lavishly mounted film, with an endless list of producers, from these countries: Sweden, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Mexico, Denmark, Greece, Switzerland, United States and Turkey. He gives you no hint that the main cast is going to land-up on an island and that the film will have and open end. The lift scene easily comes to mind, as a no-decision zone. The lift doors open and close a dozen times. Carl and Yaya are making them open every time they close, but they are arguing and unable to resolve their differences. In the end, he is going to bring the lift into play again, but in a new mode. Very cleverly, he shifts Carl and Yaya aside, almost away from the camera, as the other players take centre-stage on the yacht.
Obviously British actor Harris Dickinson (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil-2019, The King’s Man-2021), as Carl is intense, sharp and uninhibited. Spare a tear for Charlbi Dean (Yaya), who died last August. The South African actress, who had acted in just eight films, had a wow figure and a bright future. Her scenes with Harris were palpable. Dolly Earnshaw de Leon as Abigail, with a giveaway Filipina accent, carries a host of emotions with ease. Vicki Berlin as Paula is perfect as the head of the service team. Woody Harrelson as the Captain gets to mouth probably the boldest indictment of the American government’s role in assassinations, creating unviable states, election rigging and coups. He impresses as the only man on board who remains unmoved in the midst of a storm and sewage overflow.
Cinematography by Fredrik Wenzel is up to the task, and as the yacht sways, it is his camera that does the trick. Carl and Yaya’s two-shots are very well composed. Editing his own work, Ruben Östlund gets a wee bit carried away, though Mikel Cee Karlsson was around to steady the yacht.
Music by Mikkel Maltha and Leslie Ming has a life of its own. I tried to match the notes with the scenes, but got nowhere. But when I heard it on its own, it was very impressive.
(With Inputs from moviesfoundonline and filmfestivals)
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