In contemporary filmmaking, there are few phrases that can evoke more fear in the mind of a moviegoer than that of “social commentary.” It’s not that commenting on social issues is inherently bad; rather, these commentaries can feel more smug and contrived than beneficial to any given social cause. That does not mean there hasn’t been any good social commentary released recently — in a sea of “Don’t Look Ups,” a “Parasite” can emerge — but successes are few and far between. While Swedish director Ruben Östlund is well versed in the social critique, having made 2017’s art satire “The Square,” he is not quite able to match “Parasite” director Bong Joon-ho’s searing, complex and masterfully crafted indictment of class divide. Nevertheless, Östlund certainly comes close at many times in his Palme d’Or-winning film “Triangle of Sadness.”
“Triangle of Sadness” is a wild ride from beginning to end. Starting in the cutthroat green room of a male modeling audition and ending on an abandoned island à la “Lost,” the film follows a young couple Carl (Harris Dickinson) and Yaya (Charlbi Dean Kriek), both models and influencers, as they intermingle with the hyper-wealthy and uber-privileged on an exclusive cruise in the middle of the ocean. Title cards divide the film into three distinct acts: “Carl and Yaya,” “The Yacht” and “The Island.” Each of these sections have different tones and take place in separate locations, but they all contribute to the film’s class commentary.
Act 2: “The Yacht” feels like the main course of the film. It’s the longest section and spends the most time developing the movie's main themes. “The Yacht” is also certainly the funniest act, with dialogue that points to the absurdity of the uber-wealthy without feeling preachy. The second act yields the largest cast of characters in the film, split between the crew that serve the wealthy and the wealthy themselves. Characters range from a lonely tech tycoon to a seemingly lovely elderly British couple who actually manufacture weapons of war. When ship captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson) gets into an alcohol-fueled debate about Marxism with Russian oligarch Dimitry (Zlatko Burić), the film teeters on the edge of turning into cringy pseudo-intellectual slop. But it never fully reaches that point, remaining poignant while maintaining a lighthearted and interesting tone. Despite this, “The Yacht” is the least structured of the three acts and at times feels aimless. It’s a hodgepodge of interwoven tales that stretches on a little too long, sandwiched between two superior acts.
But within “The Yacht,” there are still great moments. It gets wild with a heavy-metal backed vomit and diarrhea sequence, but also contains more lighthearted fun. For example, one elderly woman tries to make every staff member take a break and go down the waterslide, only to be greeted with pushback from the commanding officer. What ultimately holds “The Yacht” back are the critiques that it tries to convey, which are considerably less nuanced than what is posed in the first and third acts.
Luckily, the film has a great beginning and end that compensate for viewers’ disappointment at the more inconsistent middle segment. The first act is short and, as its title suggests, the most personal of the three. Carl and Yaya are shown in their respective worlds of modeling before the film switches to a scene depicting them at dinner together as the check arrives. This sparks an argument where Carl claims that he always has to pick up the bill because he’s a man even though Yaya makes more money than him. While the dialogue here can border on being too in-your-face, Östlund is able to reign it in, queuing strong thematic elements that will be explored in the subsequent chapters. The film really hits its stride in its final act, “The Island.” It is in this act that the plot comes together and the movie turns into something of considerable substance.
In fact, “The Island” serves to right many of the wrongs that mar the rest of the film. Lines or moments that felt forced or strange in the previous acts come back in the end to serve a great thematic purpose that only then makes itself known. While the second act felt long and drawn-out, moments that previously felt frivolous are imbibed with new meaning. It is in the final act that the film cashes the checks it wrote earlier in the story, subverting the expectations that it established in the social dynamics the movie took so long to build. While not without its laughs, “The Island” is considerably less funny than “The Yacht.” But what it lacks in humor, it more than makes up for in narrative depth and character.
At nearly two and a half hours long, “Triangle of Sadness” has moments where it drags, but the movie almost always gives you something to make up for those duller parts. Its humor is pointed and well-constructed without feeling snobby, and it is not afraid to turn foul. But as the movie progresses towards its end, the viewer is left with real commentary to consider. As a social critique, the film doesn’t just regurgitate easy-to-digest opinions, but instead constantly finds new ways to create perspectives that contextualize what has already been said. Nothing is black and white, and “Triangle of Sadness” is all the better because of that.
Finn Kirkpatrick is a senior staff writer in the arts & culture section. He is a sophomore from Los Angeles, California intending to study Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.