Triangle of Sadness: Ruben Östlund’s savage castaway satire finds humanity all at sea

A cleaning lady can be queen as a super-yacht’s worth of the super-rich capsize in Östlund’s dark but uproarious provocation.

25 May 2022

By Christina Newland

Harris Dickinson as Carl in Triangle of Sadness (2022)
Sight and Sound

Ruben Östlund’s wonderfully sadistic comedy triptych tells the story of a handful of hyper-rich people who become stranded on a remote island after their luxury super-yacht sinks; it’s like a class-war version of Gilligan’s Island, with a good deal more gross-out humour and human cruelty than that show ever supplied. Each character is broadly symbolic of a different symptom of late capitalism, but the film has a rich enough eye for human behaviour that it never lapses into stereotypes.

The narrative is split into three segments. Part I: Carl and Yaya revolves around Harris Dickinson’s Carl, a jobbing male model at an audition, and his more successful model girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek, exuding blasé hot-girl influencer energy). They have a deeply awkward dinner where the subject is how Carl always ends up footing the bill. “It’s not about money!” goes their refrain, one which will soon enough come back to bite them. Dickinson is excellent, his quiet performance standing out amid the shoutier and more flamboyant turns around him. His Carl is a self-contained and very British character: smug and grasping and fairly expert at concealing it.

What makes Triangle of Sadness sing is its slick combination of physical and verbal farce. Occasional longueurs are easily forgiven when it’s such fun to watch: a woman being violently sea-sick in her luxury bathroom only to be repeatedly swept across the floor by the rocking boat, hanging onto the toilet seat edge throughout; the war of quotations between Woody Harrelson’s sozzled and fed-up ship’s captain and Zlatko Buric’s Russian billionaire (who provides some of the most crass and darkly funny line readings in the film), reading Ronald Reagan and Karl Marx soundbites at each other across a booze-filled table. Östlund has a gift for the surgically precise comic cut; something as simple as a close-up of someone’s face in a revealing moment can send audiences into peals of laughter.

Arvin Kananian and Woody Harrelson in Triangle of Sadness (2022)

After a series of mishaps in part II: The Yacht – bad weather, widespread seasickness at a posh dinner involving more vomit and excrement than a John Waters film, and what appear to be some Somali pirates – the super-vessel meets its terrible fate. It’s when the remaining survivors land on a beachy outcrop and try to figure out how to survive in part III that things begin to change. 

When a toilet cleaner on the yacht, Antonia (Dolly De Leon), a tough woman with a constant frown, proves the only one who can catch fish and build fires, she assumes charge: “On the boat: toilet cleaner. Here: captain.” Her background is an enigma – no one cares enough to ask her about it.

Antonia’s erstwhile superior Paula (Vicki Berlin), on the other hand, sides with the guests and tries to maintain the old order: a pat but not ineffective symbol of the middle-managerial class, whose facility in keeping the underlings down is always more important than class solidarity.

Zlatko Buric and Carolina Gynning in Triangle of Sadness

The film’s satire is not subtle, but it is riotously entertaining: lampooning the wealthy’s almost childlike reliance on service workers (most often working-class and frequently immigrants) for basic tasks, Östlund presents the beleaguered cleaning lady as achieving sweet karmic justice, taking full advantage of their neediness. Only in this back-to-basics version of a society can anything like upward mobility happen – and even then, rather than creating anything like egalitarianism, Antonia merely replicates the capitalist patterns of the outside world. Although her regime teeters on the risible – what with her rationing of pretzel sticks and borrowing of sexual favours from the island’s resident male model – it does constitute a new seedling cycle of exploitation.

There are touches of strange optimism, for example in the micro-relationship on the island between Buric’s billionaire and another yacht employee; their first interaction is completely hostile, but they’re later seen palling around, laughing and even shaving each other. Östlund, as mordant as his jokes can be, seems fundamentally to believe people are complex and often likeable in spite of their ideological flaws.

Still, his conclusion is unfailingly, horribly dark: in a dog-eat-dog capitalist world, the oppressed can rapidly become the oppressor when resources are scarce.

► Triangle of Sadness is in UK cinemas now.

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Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

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