Monday, March 4, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Triangle of Sadness (2022)

Turning another page in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Another film I missed from 2022, today's nominee is the pitch-black satirical comedy (a word I use loosely for this film) Triangle of Sadness, from Swedish director Ruben Östlund.  How to describe the plot....  It's basically the story of a luxury cruise involving a group of vapid, obscenely wealthy passengers, that goes horribly wrong.  Spoiler alert, by the way.

The film is split into three acts, the first of which focuses on a young couple, Carl and Yaya, both professional models, who date more for the social media engagement than for love.  Or at least that's how Yaya feels.  She's a very successful model and influencer, he's on his way up but earns a fraction of her salary.  And they get into a heated argument after dinner at an upscale restaurant, when the check comes and she ignores it.  Carl reminds her that she promised to pay for the meal but Yaya insists she didn't notice the check had arrived, having been fixated on her phone at the time.  The spat continues in the cab and all the way back to their hotel room, where Carl tells her he actually loves her and promises she'll come to love him back.
Act II finds Carl and Yaya on a superyacht (Yaya was invited for free as a social media celebrity) with a host of insanely affluent folk, including an elderly British couple who got rich off the manufacture of hand grenades, a Russian oligarch whose empire was built selling manure, and a lonely tech bro.  The film explores the deep class divides here, the guests obviously representing the one-percenters, the hospitality crew the middle class, and the below decks the working poor, one of whom Carl inadvertently gets fired because Yaya was staring at his bare chest for too long.  The ship captain is an aloof drunk (an always entertaining Woody Harrelson chewing scenery like a champ), for whom the scheduled captain's dinner is only convenient on the one day they're expecting rough waters.  The dinner scene is the film's centerpiece, and as I recall the one section of the film most of the marketing revolved around.  As the boat is dashed back and forth by an intense storm, the guests all begin to get seasick (having also eaten food that's spoiled because the Russian's wife demanded the entire crew, including the kitchen staff, go swimming in the ocean that afternoon).  Östlund takes great, sadistic, mischievous delight in watching these well-to-do reprobates puke and crap their guts out all over the ship, as the staff scrambles to comfort them and clean up their mess.  Meanwhile the captain (who had a cheeseburger for dinner) and the Russian oligarch get hammered and debate communism vs. capitalism over the intercom.  This sequence is some kind of sick masterpiece in a way; disgusting, anarchic, hilarious, outRAGEous.

But the third act is where the social commentary becomes the most fascinating.  After a pirate attack sinks the boat, a handful of survivors washes ashore a nearby island (the Russian is later seen pulling the expensive rings off his dead wife's fingers, because of course he intends to keep them), and only the cleaning lady Abigail knows how to catch food and make fire.  Thus the tables have completely turned on the rich folk, and Abigail exerts complete power over them, rationing their food and keeping the lifeboat to herself (and Carl, whom she bribes with food into sleeping with her).  This scenario really throws the old "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" argument back in plutocrats' faces, and it's a fun reversal.  When Abigail catches the group's first meal, an octopus, she cuts it up into bite-size pieces and initially demands to keep half since she did all the work in catching and cooking it.  No points for spotting the symbolism of the one-percenters owning half of the world's wealth.

Östlund's intent is certainly quite transparent, and his targets very easy ones, but that doesn't mean he's wrong either.  Watching shallow, oblivious, self-unaware fat cats reduced to a predicament where their money can't save them feels like sweet, sweet justice, even if the surrounding film is meandering and perhaps preachy at times.  The message works even if the delivery is a bit inelegant.

I give Triangle of Sadness *** out of ****.

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