At the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Swedish director Ruben Östlund won its highest prize, the Palme d’Or, with The Square, a satire skewering the art world. He’s returned to the festival this year with Triangle of Sadness, which tries to similarly eviscerate a number of targets: the fashion industry, the super-wealthy, and men in general. But that scattershot focus and a disinterest in pursuing any idea beyond a punchline make the film feel more like an extremely long sketch show than a satisfying narrative. Östlund is undeniably skilled at mounting visual jokes, but many others — not least a seemingly never-ending stretch of scatological gags — are broad to the point of tedium.
Unlike The Square, which had a neat container within which he could craft vignettes, here Östlund cleaves the story (and his ideas) into three distinct threads. The first follows Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek), a beautiful young influencer couple bonded more by convenience than love. Dickinson proves his comic chops in a brilliantly tetchy performance. Carl, though privileged, is on a downward career slide, earning less than Yaya and literally everyone else on the luxury yacht cruise where the second part takes place. Yet he’s still in a position to accidentally get an employee fired by complaining about him in a fit of jealousy. Dickinson displays a fabulously expressive storm of horror and helplessness as he watches the man saying his goodbyes.
The second thread focuses on the broader relationship between the rich guests and the put-upon staff aboard the yacht. The filthy-rich global elite range from a polite British weapons manufacturer to a Russian oligarch (Zlatko Burić) who proudly proclaims “I sell shit” (he runs an international fertilizer business). Despite the potential of the premise, this section is by far the weakest, shooting fish in a barrel. These people are caricatures, and the film gawks at their bad behavior with no skill or subtlety. One scene encapsulates how Östlund is content to name-check ideas rather than explore them: The yacht’s captain (Woody Harrelson, excellent as a man past caring about rich-people bullshit) and the Russian try to one-up each other in a quote contest, with the former citing Karl Marx and the latter Ronald Reagan.
Triangle of Sadness has no politics beyond gesturing toward extreme wealth and power and saying, “That ain’t right,” and it has no counterpoint to this paradigm which it presents so sneeringly. The third story thread depicts the new social hierarchy that emerges after pirates seize the ship and a handful of staff and guests attempt to survive on an island. Previously a toilet manager, Abigail’s (Dolly DeLeon) ability to fish and make fire means she is the captain now. DeLeon performs with fierce relish, and her hard-won satisfactions make this section the most richly entertaining, as titans of industry are forced into more humble roles. But as the castaways form a matriarchy, it turns out Östlund can only imagine the same old story of power corrupting. He remains as skilled at crafting absurdity and farce as ever, but in the big underlying ideas (or their absence), Triangle of Sadness flounders.
Triangle of Sadness is playing the Cannes Film Festival, and will open in theaters later this year.
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