After skewering male ego in Force Majeure and lampooning the art world with The Square, writer-director Ruben Östlund takes the handbrake off altogether with a takedown of the super-rich aboard a superyacht that plays like Buñuel by way of the Farrelly brothers. A film that really goes there – the second half is positively spattered in bodily fluids – it’s hardly subtle, but it’s a wild ride and in many ways, it’s also the perfect comedy for our times.
Two models, Carl (the going-places Harris Dickinson, a compelling blend of thoughtful and vacuous) and his influencer girlfriend Yaya (Charlbi Dean), are our conduit onto the boat. We meet them in a Zoolander-esque prelude on dry land, dealing with the pass-agg slights of the fashion world and bickering about who should be picking up the bill on date night.
She’s in it for the likes – his secondary function in their relationship is to take pictures of her – and he’s in it for love. Or so he claims. He’s actually jealous and petty, neither honest with himself nor with the world around him. Soon, they’re sunbathing on a vast, freshly polished deck – there on an Instagram freebie, eye-candy for the idle rich aboard who are attended to by a crew drilled to fawn over them.
But the pair aren’t the main attaction. Triangle of Sadness sets Carl and Yaya up as a kind of two-person middle-class sandwiched between the super wealthy and the worker bees aboard, and whose lack of agency in this new world sees them recede temporarily into the background.
Instead, the focus switches to their fellow passengers: a genteel English elderly couple who turn out to be arms manufacturers, a lonely tech billionaire, and Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘King of Shit’, a bloviating fertiliser baron who made his fortune when the Iron Curtain fell and worships at the altar of Reagan and Thatcher. They’re all disgustingly rich, and Triangle of Sadness makes no effort to hide its disgust. The entire crew is forced to take a swim on the whim of the fertiliser king’s bored wife. ‘Everyone’s equal!’ she tells them, without a hint of irony, as they’re forced down the inflatable slide.
It’s a takedown of the super-rich that plays like Buñuel by way of the Farrelly brothers
In an Agatha Christie novel, one of these people would be discovered with a fish knife buried in their back at the end of act one. For this floating metaphor for late-capitalist decay, comeuppance comes in act two, in the shape of a Force 10 gale and a boatload of pirates. Drunken captain (Woody Harrelson) is locked in his cabin quoting Karl Marx over the PA – told you it wasn’t subtle – and soon a handful of survivors are washed up on a seemingly deserted beach.
Östlund doesn’t work particularly hard to disguise the direction his social reversal allegory is taking – the wealthy marooned survivors turn out to be useless, leaving the yacht’s multi-faceted toilet cleaner Abigail (Dolly De Leon) to catch fish, build fires and slowly take charge – and you’ll probably guess where it’s all heading, but there’s such clarity and economy in the way the scenario plays out that it doesn’t matter a jot.
If the final moments feel a little late in the day to be introducing an element of obliqueness to things, that’s a rare dud note. For the majority of the film, Östlund’s combination of sledgehammer and scalpel work a treat. They’re fast becoming the hallmarks of a satirist who’s unlikely to run short of subject matter any time soon.
Triangle of Sadness premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.